A Robo Dermatologist For The Space Shuttle

The space shuttle would burn up as it reenters Earth's atmosphere if it weren't for the heat-resistant tiles that cover its aluminum skin. Some 17,000 of the tiles on the shuttle's lower surfaces are made of silica that must be inspected and waterproofed before each mission--a task now done piecemeal over several months.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University expect to speed up the process with the Tessellator, a robot that inspects and waterproofs the tiles. The robot divides or "tessellates" its task among uniform work spaces, using a camera to locate each tile. By comparing the condition of the tile with data on its state at earlier inspections, the steel inspector identifies flaws better than the human eye. By using this efficient work pattern, the robot can complete its task in just a few eight-hour shifts. Engineers expect the new tile inspector to be on the job at Kennedy Space Center within a year.

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