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UAF undergrad helps design robotic arms for NASA

In spring 2012, Margaret Raughley learned that she earned a slot in a competitive National Aeronautics and Space Administration internship program to take place at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. From late May through early August of that year, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Physics major would work with a NASA mentor and a small team on ARMS, short for “Automated Robotic Manipulator System.”

“Getting accepted and knowing they picked you out of hundreds of applicants is a big deal,” Raughley said by phone. “I was stunned!”

The ARMS prototype is a hefty set of mechanical arms, made of aluminum and designed to grasp and manipulate objects. These ARMS can be connected to a vehicle, launched and then used to make repairs to damaged satellites or equipment residing in space. ARMS’ movements would be directed from an operator possibly stationed hundreds of miles away. No easy feat.

A motor failure and the sheer enormity of creating a robotic system that can turn, bend and pinch could have been overwhelming, but Raughley and her two colleagues persisted. Without the ability to test ARMS in a space environment, the team focused their attention on practicing arm motions. Eventually, the team added a trio of cameras to the apparatus, so an operator could manipulate the arms based on what they saw through the cameras’ lenses. This addition allowed Raughley’s team to simulate the experience of controlling the system from afar.

“I think we made excellent strides. I’m really happy that we got it working, Raughley said. “There’s so much that could go wrong.”

Raughley’s internship ended before ARMS was complete, but a new batch of undergraduates will pick up where her team left off. There’s no telling how the prototype can be refined in the future. In just two months, Raughley’s team was able to grow the project tremendously, beginning with little more than a pair of robotic hands left them by a group of previous employees.

Margaret Raughley graduated with her Bachelor of Science degree from UAF in spring 2013. She plans to return to her native Pennsylvania and enroll in graduate school.
Article by Amy Hartley. Photo courtesy of Margaret Raughley.