Inside Rensselaer
* Nathaniel Quillin with Robonaut2
Photo courtesy of NASA
Student Made Key Contributions to NASA’s First Human-Like Robot

Rensselaer student Nathaniel Quillin has friends in high places. Some of those friends helped pilot space shuttle Discovery when it was launched into orbit Feb. 23.

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, was launched into orbit aboard Discovery and has 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 allow researchers 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.

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-ins 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.

For more information on Robonaut 2, go to

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 5, Number 4, March 18, 2011
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