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NASA buys cutting-edge Cornish robot

To be dubbed Oooh-Arrr-2-D2, no doubt

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In a triumph for West Country technical prowess and engineering knowhow, NASA has ordered a robot made in Cornwall. Here's a vid:

Admittedly the Cornish droid - a humanoid contraption powered by compressed air and known as RoboThespian - is not intended for use in space like the mighty, 12-foot-tall Canadian "Dextre" unit or the somewhat less impressive R2 "Robonaut". Rather, the RoboThespian is intended to wow visitors at NASA's Kennedy Space Centre on Cape Canaveral in Florida.

According to the contract award announcement, the space agency will pay $108,570 for the groundbased counterpart to the space station's R2 unit. No official NASA designation other than "Life Like Robot" has so far been promulgated, but given the machine's origins something along the lines of "Ooh-Aarr 2-D2" might perhaps be in order.

The RoboThespian, produced by Penryn firm Engineered Arts, is 5'9" tall, weighs 33kg and comes with a year's warranty once installed on its base. Prospective owners should be aware that it requires both a wall socket and a supply of compressed air, as well as somewhere to plug in its Cat5 network cable and a safety barrier "to prevent contact with visitors".

Readers may also be interested to note that the RoboThespian's central "motion storage and control" brain runs on a 1.6 gig Atom processor and includes 32 GB of solid state memory. There are also a brace of 800 MHz ARM processors for "eye screen and RGB face colour control" and a further 5 multicore processors for "motion and air valve control".

Software-wise, Engineered Arts boss Will Jackson tells us:

RoboThespian is built on Gentoo Linux - we have spent three years developing the core software which we intend to release open source around Xmas this year. The software will work equally well for programming hobby and research robots - it provides an abstraction layer between hardware and high level software, as well as a method for recording and mixing motion routines, controlling text to speech, speech recognition and face recognition and other 'intelligent' modules.

The main reason for not releasing the code OS to date is the incomplete documentation - we will also hope to include a binary package for Ubuntu. We also have a virtual RoboThespian built in Blender which we use to program the real thing.

Perhaps disappointingly given Cornwall's illustrious mining history, RoboThespian is made not of tin but aluminium (chassis) and vacuum formed Polyethylene Terephthalate (body shell). Full tech specs are available here in pdf for those who'd like to know more.

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