How will robotic exploration of the universe evolve?

Robotic emissaries explore the universe for us. Whether traveling to our moon, to other planets, or beyond the Solar System, robots are sometimes much more useful than humans. What are future trends in robotic space exploration? To learn more about this topic, we spoke to Andrew Jones, a doctoral candidate at North Dakota State University who specializes in it.

What do you think next steps are in using robots to explore the universe?

Robots have played, and likely will continue to play, an important role for space exploration. Robotic rovers, such as Curiosity, continue to be used for exploring Mars. In the near-term, there are projects in development to send new robots to planets and moons in the solar system, including additional rovers to Mars. Many of these are teleoperated (remote controlled) from stations on Earth. For the exploration of astronomical objects that are farther away, it may be necessary to use robots with increased autonomy – the communication delay would be too high to effectively teleoperate the robot.

What are the major obstacles to creating self-replicating or self-reconfiguring robots?

Both self-replicating and self-reconfiguring robots are creatable. The effectiveness of those types of robot systems, however, would vary significantly based on hardware and software quality. For instance, it would certainly be accomplishable to build a modular robot that can self-reconfigure; but if the configurations don’t have much utility (e.g. accomplishing a goal), then it may be more productive to make a non-modular robot.

Similarly, self-replicating robots may only be beneficial in locations that are difficult to access – otherwise it may be more productive to have a factory build robots instead of making a self-replicating robot. In essence, the obstacle would be finding a justification to add this complex (and difficult-to-achieve) characteristic to a robot system.

For individuals who are interested in working in robotic space exploration, what are some interesting areas for specialization?

In my opinion, robot autonomy is going to be an important research area for robotic space exploration. Furthermore, for up-and-coming researchers, it may be beneficial to join a small satellite (“CubeSat”) project. Many universities have or are starting to have these projects. Participating in them may help students gain experience in the aerospace industry.