Star Wars and NASA are two very different things. While one is a real government agency involved in the complex puzzle of space exploration, the other is a movie franchise that has captured the imagination of millions. With such varying characteristics, it’s very hard to see how these two can work together. However, NASA could actually be looking at Star Wars in order to learn important lessons for the development of new space-bound robots.
Although Star Wars is a science-fiction movie with very interesting concepts, most of them are based on a very weak understanding of physics. It’s more of a fantasy than reality but a NASA engineer thinks that there are a few things in the movie that can be of great help.
W. Kris Verdeyen, a NASA robotics engineer who has worked with the government agency for years, says that NASA should actually focus its efforts on creating its own droids inspired by the Star Wars franchise. He says that robots such as the BB-8 and R2-D2 have unique features that can be repurposed and used in real-life space-bound robots.
The robots in Star Wars have very unique features, some of which could actually come handy for NASA. For instance, the droids are capable of carrying a wide range of tools. These tools can practically address any problem on the spacecraft, and if NASA could develop such a versatile robot, then it would be a huge leap towards making operations at the International Space Station smoother.
Verdeyen adds that a robot like R2-D2 can easily repair broken circuits on the spacecraft’s wing much faster than through the conventional solutions. The robot can also be very helpful when the spacecraft is under a big laser fire because it has a fire extinguisher that can put the fire out if needed.
However, despite all this, the world is still very far away repair robots. The current real-life astromechs used by NASA can only automate tasks that are usually completed by humans.
Star Wars droids’ autonomy is also something worth noting. According to Verdeyen, these robots tend to have encyclopedic knowledge regarding the spacecraft they are working on. The robots are intelligent enough to solve problems independently without the need for further input from a human operator.
This is perhaps the biggest design feature missing in the robots used by NASA. Verdeyen says that even the Robonaut 2 that has already been deployed to the International Space Station requires some level of manual operation from a human. This will be very problematic in long space travels. Verdeyen argues that when humans start traveling further into space and experiencing long communication lags with the ground control, smarter robots could be crucial in making such travels possible.
Sadly, at the moment, we don’t really have the technology or the ability to create a real-life R2-D2 robot. NASA says that it’s working on this by exploring the idea of “embedded intelligence” but so far there’s no indication that we are anywhere near a breakthrough.