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Rensselaer Student Made Key Contributions to NASA's First Human-Like Robot

February 24, 2011

Rensselaer Student Made Key Contributions to NASA's First Human-Like Robot

Rensselaer student Nathaniel Quillin

Rensselaer student Nathaniel Quillin. (Photo credit NASA)


Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Sophomore Nathaniel Quillin Helped Develop “Robonaut 2,” Which Will Launch into Orbit Today Aboard Space Shuttle Discovery

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute student Nathaniel Quillin has friends in high places. Some of those friends will pilot space shuttle Discovery into orbit this afternoon.

Quillin, a sophomore dual majoring in computer science and computer and systems engineering, spent two semesters and two summers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) outside Houston. He is a member of the research team that developed the first human-like robot to be sent to space. The robot, called Robonaut 2, or R2, is scheduled to launch into orbit today aboard Discovery and become a permanent resident of the International Space Station (ISS).

At JSC, Quillin wrote the computer code used to help debug R2’s hardware. Additionally, Quillin helped write code for the graphical user interface that NASA researchers use to control R2. This control software creates 3-D visualizations that allows researcher to see how R2 will carry out their commands, prior to sending the actual commands for the robot to execute.

“It’s pretty cool, and pretty scary, to know code that I wrote is going to launch on Discovery and be used in space,” said Quillin, a native of League City, Texas. “It will be a few months before R2 is set up and operational, but I can’t wait to see some actual video footage sent down from the space station, and see R2 installed and moving around in space.”

His first experience at NASA was during the summer between high school and his first year at Rensselaer. He went on to complete co-ops at JSC at the end of his freshman year, and also during his sophomore year. At JSC, he befriended several astronauts, including those who will pilot Discovery and carry R2 to the ISS. Quillin plans to return to JSC during the summer of 2012 to resume his work on R2.

Quillin said he’s been able to directly apply many of the principles he’s learning in class, particularly Introduction to Engineering Analysis and memory management techniques from computer science courses, to his work on Robonaut 2. Beyond space and the ISS, Quillin said he’s confident the R2 project will have many beneficial terrestrial applications.

“I think sometimes we get comfortable with a certain scale in relation to where we are, and we get inside this bubble of earth. Space research is not only about space exploration, it also provides research and development for stuff we can use on earth. A lot of NASA technology gets spun off. If we spin off Robonaut, I imagine it could have application in prosthetic limbs, or robots for nursing homes. In my mind, it’s a win-win situation whenever you’re developing new technology for space,” he said.

According to NASA, Robonaut 2 is a dexterous robot that not only looks like a human but also is designed to work like one. With human-like hands and arms, R2 is able to use the same tools station crew members use. In the future, the greatest benefits of humanoid robots in space may be as assistants or stand-in for astronauts during spacewalks or for tasks too difficult or dangerous for humans. For now, R2 is still a prototype and does not have adequate protection needed to exist outside the space station in the extreme temperatures of space. The project is a collaboration between NASA and General Motors.

Several Rensselaer research projects have been launched into space over the past two years. In August 2009, an experimental heat transfer system designed by Plawsky and Rensselaer Professor Peter Wayner was installed in the International Space Station (ISS), where it will remain for three years. In November 2009, wear-resistant, low-friction nanomaterials created by Professor Linda Schadler were blasted into orbit aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis, attached to the outer hull of the ISS, and exposed to rigors of space. In May 2010, Assistant Professor Cynthia Collins sent an army of microorganisms into space, to investigate new ways of preventing the formation and spread of biofilms, or clusters of bacteria, that could pose a threat to the health of astronauts.

For more information on Robonaut 2, visit:

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About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, 32 research centers, more than 145 academic programs, and a dynamic community made up of more than 7,600 students and more than 100,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include more than 145 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration.