Robot Costume to Help NASA Astronauts Learn to Work with Their Artificial Helpers

It sounds easy: Build a robot costume that the wearer can use to convince someone the robot is real. But the task wasn’t so simple.

Rice student Grant Wilkinson helps Pedro Lozano adjust an arm as they test NotBot, a robot-like outfit ordered by NASA to help train astronauts who will work with robots on long-range missions. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

A team of Rice University freshmen calling themselves NotBot took on the challenge and created a contraption they hope will suit NASA. The agency asked them for a convincing lookalike of its humanoid robots Valkyrie and Robonaut that it can use to easily assess human-robot interactions and help future astronauts develop everyday protocols with their artificial helpers on missions to Mars and beyond.

The project may involve a bit of role-playing for both parties, but it’s more than mere fantasy. There’s a Robonaut already among the crew at the International Space Station, where it works alongside a human crew.

The Rice team of Rebecca Francis, Pedro Lozano, Pedro Regino, Christina Rincon and Grant Wilkinson built their bot to give maximum movement to the wearer.

That’s good for Lozano, who will be the “bot” at the upcoming George R. Brown School of Engineering Design Showcase at Rice’s Tudor Fieldhouse April 13. The chemical and biomolecular engineering major will don the apparel there to show off its flexibility at an event that just happens to be during National Robotics Week.

“I’ve worn earlier iterations for 20 minutes or so, but I only put this suit on for the first time today,” Lozano said. “I think I’ll be wearing it for most of showcase, for a couple of hours.”

With a black bodysuit covering his chest and head, Lozano stood while his team prepped him for a demo a week before the showcase: First they put the modified shoulder pads on him, then the lit chest plate, then the black wood-and-polymer wrap around the middle and then the arms of shaped, laser-cut cardboard coated with fiberglass, held together and to a pair of gloves with internal elastic-and-Velcro straps. Finally, they stuffed Lozano’s head into the modified motorcycle helmet and silvered visor.

From the waist up, the human part appeared gone. As the NotBot, Lozano will not speak but must now learn to move like a machine.

“NASA gave the team a time frame: A person had to be able to put on this costume in no longer than a half hour,” said Rice bioengineer Jane Grande-Allen, the team’s faculty adviser. “This one doesn’t take that long, but it took a lot of hard work to get all the pieces to attach firmly.”

The students had help from another mentor who makes convincing Stormtrooper costumes. “For example, we really didn’t know how to attach the arms, so he gave us the idea of having the straps on the inside,” Lozano said. “Basically, they’re elastic bands that help them stay in place.”

Ultimately, the challenge will not be for the wearer, but for the people who will be interacting with the “bot.” “NASA’s idea is for this to let them do behavioral testing of the person interacting with the robot,” Francis said.

“NASA has astro-robots they could use, but they told us it would be a lot less expensive to have us make a robot suit,” Regino added.

“The problem is their Robonaut machines, the working robots, can’t operate individually even though they are semifunctional,” Lozano said. “They’re not at the level yet where they can perform outside. So even though this isn’t an actual robot, it will allow them to get valuable data.”

Anyone can put NotBot to the test at the showcase, which will be open to the public from 4:30 to 7 p.m., when the winners are announced. But don’t expect a lengthy conversation.

“When you think of NASA’s Robonaut or other robots, they don’t talk,” Grande-Allen said. “So NotBot won’t, either.”


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