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Robonaut 2: The offspring of GM and NASA

The humanoid handyman is expected to be equally comfortable working the assembly line in Detroit and puttering around a spacecraft headed far, far away.

Robonaut 2 built with dexterous humanlike hands is able to work tools typically used by humans. NASA

This is not your average assembly line worker.

But Robonaut 2 is expected to be an exemplary co-worker. General Motors and NASA on Thursday introduced Robonaut 2, a humanoid robot being jointly developed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston for use in both the automotive and aerospace industries.

Robonaut 2 is stronger, more dexterous, and more technologically advanced than the original Robonaut, according to NASA. Robonaut, which was developed 10 years ago by NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, was intended--as its name implies--for use as a robot astronaut.

Robonaut 2, nicknamed R2, seems more destined for a car assembly plant than the far reaches of space. It can lift 20 pounds with each arm, about four times that of other humanoid robots, according to NASA. Its nimble hands, fingers, and opposable thumbs also enable it to use the same tools normally used by human hands.

GM engineers were sent to the Johnson Space Center laboratory in Houston to work on Robonaut 2 with NASA scientists and engineers. NASA

"For GM, this is about safer cars and safer plants," Alan Taub, GM's vice president for global research and development, said in a statement. "When it comes to future vehicles, the advancements in controls, sensors and vision technology can be used to develop advanced vehicle safety systems."

Detroit and the rest of the auto industry are no strangers to robots, of course. Automakers have long employed nameless, faceless robotic devices--think arms, rather than whole humanoid torsos--to assemble sedans, SUVs, and such. But those machines are evolving. Ford's RUTH, for instance, uses a "soft" touch to test out the interior surfaces and controls of vehicles.

While a partnership with GM may seem a rather earthbound endeavor for NASA, it is of a piece with the space agency's new road map. On Monday, the Obama administration made it clear that it wanted NASA to focus more on commercial spaceflight and on collaboration with private industry. Plus, NASA and GM go way back, having collaborated during the Apollo years on navigation systems and the lunar rover.

Does Robonaut 2 pose yet another challenge to skilled U.S. factory workers in need of jobs? GM's Taub suggested a less dire interpretation of R2's debut.

"The partnership's vision is to explore advanced robots working together in harmony with people, building better, higher quality vehicles in a safer, more competitive manufacturing environment," he said.

NASA, of course, focused on how the robot might enable the organization to further explore space with less danger to astronauts.

"Working side by side with humans, or going where the risks are too great for people, machines like Robonaut will expand our capability for construction and discovery," Mike Coats, Johnson's center director, said in a statement.