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NASA could look to Star Wars for building better space-bound robots for repairs

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A new study looks at what Star Wars gets right with its astromech robots like R2-D2 and BB-8

Image: Lucasfilm

Beyond the general “space” conceit, NASA and Star Wars don’t have a ton of similarities. One is a very real government organization concerned with the complex realities of space exploration; the other is a science-fiction franchise about space wizards and with a very, very tenuous grasp of how physics work. But there are some useful scientific lessons we can still learn from Star Wars, at least according to one NASA robotics engineer.

W. Kris Verdeyen, who spent years working on NASA’s humanoid robot Valkyrie, argues that NASA should strive to create its own Star Wars-inspired droids. In fact, robots like R2-D2 or BB-8 have features and functions that could turn useful in our own space-bound bots, according to an article Verdeyen published today in the journal Science Robotics.

“NASA does not have quite the same need for battlefield fixes as the Rebel Alliance,” Verdeyen points out, but NASA has been creating its own anthropomorphic robots that could assist astronauts in space. Valkyrie, for example, is a NASA robot designed to test technologies for future robots that could replace astronauts in more dangerous situations on spacecraft. And in 2011, the humanoid Robonaut 2 began working on the International Space Station to help automate tasks like changing out air filters.

But Star Wars’ robots have some peculiar features that could come in handy. For example, the droids carry an incredible array of tools that make them quite versatile when it comes to addressing problems on the fictional spacecraft, Verdeyen says. RD-D2, for example, is able to quickly solder together broken circuits on the wing of a spacecraft while under heavy laser fire or put out fires with a built-in fire extinguisher.

We’re still a long way off from purpose-built repair robots, though. NASA’s current real-life astromechs are designed to automate tasks already done by human astronauts. And that means that our space-bound robots will likely look more like people, rather than the small, tool-filled robots à la BB-8. But even if our robots don’t look like astromechs in Star Wars, making them more functional is still a valuable idea.

More importantly, though, is the autonomy of the Star Wars droids, Verdeyen says. Those droids have an encyclopedic knowledge of the craft they work on, and they’re intelligent enough to be able to solve problems independently of a human operator. It’s one of the biggest limits of our current robots: even the Robonaut 2 currently on the ISS still needs manual, human control. As humans start traveling farther away from Earth, experiencing long lags in communication with ground control, they’ll need smarter robots that can work more independently.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the abilities to build a real-life R2-D2 or BB-8 just yet, even though those robots are more realistic than you’d think. But NASA is working on the problem. The agency is continuing to explore the idea of “embedded intelligence” — which could combine a robot with the mechanical abilities of, say, Robonaut with some of the artificial intelligence databases and problem-solving toolsets of something like IBM’s Watson.