How will robotics advance the space economy?

Robots are critical for expanding humanity off-planet. They help not just with exploring distant parts of the universe, but also with advancing our economic activity into Earth orbit. We spoke with Gordon Roesler, who formerly led DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program. We asked for his thoughts on the potentials and difficulties facing space robotics, as well as how individuals can involve themselves in this exciting field.

What are some of the most important ways that space robotics can make space more accessible, and which of these ways are most feasible?

I like to think about the example of Amazon. Jeff Bezos did not have to create a transportation infrastructure, nor a communications infrastructure. He leveraged UPS, FedEx, and the Internet to create one of the world’s five largest companies. Space robotics is the cornerstone of a transportation infrastructure in space – moving satellites from low Earth orbit to other orbits, delivering packages to upgrade satellites through their lives, and inspecting and repairing them. New industries will leverage this in-space infrastructure for businesses we haven’t even thought of today.

Some of the large launch vehicle companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin, are recovering and reusing their first stages. Space robotics enables a similar reusable architecture in space. Space tugs equipped with robotics can ferry various payloads around, be refueled, and be used again and again. With the space robotics capabilities that DARPA and NASA are developing, this is completely achievable in just a few years.

Why do I say that robotics is the key? Because of flexibility. Robotic arms can grasp objects of various sizes. They can have a variety of tools to grasp, push, repair, and install things. They can be controlled automatically or by humans on the ground. This flexibility means there will be fewer design changes to the satellites. Satellite designers are conservative, and don’t want to modify proven designs. Robotic devices bring these new benefits without the need for standardized interfaces, which designers aren’t yet ready for.

Some work is being done to make satellites modular, and also to assemble them in orbit. One of the leaders is the German Aerospace Center (DLR) with their iBOSS project. In the US, NovaWurks has developed modular “HISats” that have been tested in orbit. Making satellites modular means you don’t have to launch them all at once. This can bring costs down and allow the use of smaller launch vehicles.

Human presence in space is going to move closer to the Moon. Today, human space presence is exclusively at the International Space Station (and soon, a new Chinese space station). The ISS may be replaced by commercial space stations, but it would also be very useful to have an all-robotic space station – one where many of the functions performed on ISS today can be done by robots, as well as some new jobs that aren’t or can’t be done on ISS. This concept is fleshed out in my article in The Space Review.

What are some of the biggest constraints to advancing space robotics and what can be done to remove them?

You can’t just buy an industrial robot and send it into space. I wrote an article in Room, the European space journal, in which I listed six reasons why off-the-shelf robotics are not suitable for space applications: radiation; thermal; materials; vacuum compatibility; launch environments; and lubrication. So, robotic systems have to be custom designed for space. If you were to mass produce space robot arms, they wouldn’t be much more expensive than industrial arms; but the design and testing costs at the beginning make the first arms very costly. The trick will be for someone to design a low-cost flight-qualified robot arm that has a wide variety of applications.

Another challenge is the need to automate some of the robotic operations. The idea of controlling robot arms from the ground has some problems: there are time delays in the signal; sometimes communications momentarily are lost; operators may not have a perfect picture of the situation; and operators make mistakes. When a robotic satellite and its client are very close to each other, these problems can lead to unwanted contact and damage. So, key robot operations need to be automated. The operator says “go” and the final robot operations are guided by the onboard computer and cameras rather than from the ground. Making this work is a complex enterprise, which DARPA and NASA have solved for their space robotic missions, but each space robot needs this capability.

What advice do you have for people who would like to work in space robotics?

First, this is a growing field, and it’s a good time to enter it. On-orbit servicing, assembly and manufacturing (OSAM) is generating more interest at NASA, the Defense Department, and in the aerospace industry. Robotics will also be key to establishing the sustainable presence on the Moon that NASA is now working towards. A reusable space transportation infrastructure, based on robotics, will support all of these exciting new trends.

Second, space robotics is as much about software as hardware. Using robotics in automated operations requires image recognition and processing, automated fault responses, and robot control algorithms customized for this application. Mission simulators will help prove that the robotic operations are safe, reliable, and efficient. Human-robot interfaces will help the operators control the robotics, and their development requires a lot of code.

Some places to look for work in space robotics: NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and the various projects that it supports; companies that are involved in current space robotics projects, such as Made in Space, Tethers Unlimited, Oceaneering Space Systems, Northrop Grumman, and Maxar Space Solutions (and in Canada, MDA). NASA’s JPL and Langley Research Center have world-leading capabilities in space robotics. The US Naval Research Laboratory is a national center of excellence in automating space robotics, as well as NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.