5 robots pushing the frontiers of space exploration

From Nasa to the European Space Agency, investors are pouring billions into creating robotics and AI applications suitable for zero-gravity conditions. This inspiring new technology has the potential to aid missions, facilitate exploration and maybe even make it possible for us to relocate to other planets one day.

From Robby in Forbidden Planet to Star Wars icons R2-D2 and C-3PO, we’ve been imagining robots in space for decades. However, today they’re no longer confined to the big screen – they’re fast becoming a reality.

The astronaut assistant

Meet R5, aka Valkyrie, a six-foot-tall, 132kg humanoid robot. Designed to help astronauts perform a wide range of tasks in space, she’s powered entirely by battery and equipped with multiple actuators enabling 44 degrees of freedom, gripper hands to carry out tasks, and sensors and cameras in her head and chest.

Originally built by the Johnson Space Centre (JSC) for the 2013 DARPA Robotics Challenge, she later became part of Nasa’s Space Robotics Challenge. Since then, Northeastern University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, have all been working on the software needed to make her space-mission ready.

The main focus has been on getting her to carry out repairs such as maintaining solar and electrical panels as well as to explore and collect samples independently. She’s doing well and is proving she has what it takes.

“She’ll never get to space unfortunately,” said Murphy Wonsick, PhD student at Northeastern University speaking to Tech Crunch, “[…] but the idea is that one day a future version of her will get there.”

Building ‘Moon Valley’

Will humans ever live on the moon?

Roll in, ispace’s 3.7kg unnamed rover.

Shaped like a metallic beetle, this small, lightweight mobility platform decked with 360-degree view 3D cameras is primarily designed for surface exploration. However, the team designing it also envisages another possible future use: constructing the first shelters on lunar soil.

What role will it play? Because of an inherent ability to wield tools such as drills and manipulators, the rover could be deployed by companies to extract the resources needed to build from zero-gravity ground.

But the team of Japanese scientists behind ispace are thinking even bigger, envisaging an entire colony called Moon Valley, built entirely by robots. And they’re already taking steps to make it a reality, planning a private space mission to the Moon as soon as 2019.

There are potentially billions of tonnes of water on the lunar surface, which can be used for energy to provide fuel for spacecraft and also oxygen to provide life support for people,

says Dr John Walker, Chief Rover Engineer at ispace.

“Our plan is to deploy rovers which will traverse the lunar surface to gather data and map potential spots for extraction. At the same time, they will collect information about the Moon’s environment to discover which areas are viable for habitation.

“AI could enable ispace to send high-level commands – for example, to map a region – to an entire swarm of rovers and have them decide how to travel across rough terrain, around obstacles, and predict which areas are more likely to have water.

“By mapping the lunar surface to identify where water resources exist, ultimately this will enable industry to extend from the Earth to the Moon, so people can live and work on the Moon.”

ispace’s rover isn’t the only robot with designs on moon construction. The Pacific International Space Centre for Exploration (PISCES) has already got a tele-operated robot to build a landing pad, though only on Earth. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency is working on 3D printed shelters.

A floating space Alexa

Between June and October 2018, German astronaut Alex Gerst and his crew mates are taking part in the European Space Agency’s Horizons mission. But they won’t be alone. Joining them on board will be CIMON, an autonomous floating robotic head assistant.

The bot is being developed by Airbus on behalf of the German Aerospace Centre and runs a version of IBM Watson’s artificial intelligence. As well as a video-screen face, CIMON has a camera to see his surroundings, plus a digital voice to enable him to answer questions and interact with astronauts as they perform tasks.

The idea behind CIMON is that he’ll make demanding tasks less stressful. He’ll also act as an early warning system to detect and avoid technical problems. However, before he’s able to do this, his own safety feature – an in-built navigation system – is being tested to minimise collision potential with humans or the ship interior.

“CIMON will be the first AI-based mission and flight assistance system,” said Manfred Jaumann, Head of Microgravity Payloads from Airbus. “We are the first company in Europe to carry a free flyer, a kind of flying brain, to the ISS and to develop artificial intelligence for the crew on board the space station.”

Send for the satellite mechanic

Space is filled with thousands of satellites that not only predict the weather but also explore planets and galaxies to help us better understand the universe.

But what if something starts to go wrong? It’s not like you have mechanics in space. Well, actually, we almost do.

Nasa is currently working on Restore-L, a robotic spacecraft equipped with all the tools, technologies and techniques needed to extend the lifespan of satellites in situ. From grabbing and servicing to refuelling and relocating, Restore-L could even help minimise the problem of orbital debris.

How does it work? Restore-L will be equipped with an autonomous real-time navigation system, which uses sensors, algorithms and a processor to find its way to the target. It will also have dextrous arms, sophisticated multifunction tools and a propellant transfer system to deliver fuel at the right temperature, pressure and rate.

Set to launch in mid-2020, this new tech will help ensure our satellite-enabled space explorations avoid disruption.

Marsbee explorer swarms

Mars Opposition and Equinox, Credit: Nasa/JPL/MSSS

We’ve heard of robotic bees autonomously pollinating crops here on Earth. Now these insect droids have a new design, as well as a new purpose, out in space: advanced Mars exploration.

Currently being prototyped for Nasa by experts from the US and Japan, Marsbees will work in swarms to map the terrain on the red planet.

They’ll also collect samples of the thin air in the hope of finding methane, a possible sign of life. In between missions, they’ll return to their base rover to recharge.

These fast-moving, bumblebee-sized micro bots will be equipped with sensors and wireless comms to send images and measurements back to Earth. However, instead of rotary wings, they’ve got giant flapping ones purported to be around the same size as a cicada’s, which can range from 3-6cm.

According to Chang-kwon Kang, of the University of Alabama, “…Marsbees can significantly enhance the Mars exploration mission.” And at a fraction of the cost of existing rovers.

These applications of robots in space are only the tip of the intergalactic iceberg.  From shape-shifting robots roaming other planets to gecko-bots cleaning up floating debris, there any many other designs and prototypes in progress.

By enabling us to perform tasks far beyond our human capabilities, these smart technologies are advancing the frontiers of space exploration in exciting new ways.

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