Space Age Continued: The Role of Robotics

Robots have made remarkable progress and accomplished a great deal since the first human-made object survived in space.‘Sputnik 1’ launched in 1957 and implemented ‘The Dawn of the Space Age’. Incredibly, today, most space-exploration is manned by unmanned space probes. There are two major types of robot in space: remotely operated vehicles (ROV) and remote manipulator system (RMS).

Robots are able to withstand harsh conditions and high levels of radiation, yet despite the cost of producing them, it is more cost-effective to send an autonomous machine to space instead of a human. An unmanned space probe doesn’t need to cater to a human-life with regulated temperatures and breathability. They possess the ability to travel close to the sun – where heat and radiation levels would kill a human-being – and withstand long-term voyages as far as interstellar space, with temperatures as low as 2.7 Kelvin (-270.45 Celsius, -454.81 Fahrenheit). Voyager 1, which launched in 1977, left the heliosphere in 2018 and has continued to send never-before-seen valuable data back to Earth. With this in mind, it makes sense to explore the importance of space innovation.


Development of Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning in Space 

Robotics and telerobots have come on leaps and bounds with the use of ‘AI’. Their innovative and assertive nature has improved with the ever-evolving haptic technology and the development of mechatronics: ‘robotic-arm’ systems. Operated by controllers on the ground, these ‘mechatronics’ can mimic human arm movements, which can be taught by machine learning instead of the need to write complex codes. Machines are taught to learn by themselves by developing artificial neural networks, which will help in the development of future space robots, known as planetary rovers. Their role will be to survey, observe, extract resources and deploy infrastructure for human arrival and habitation.

DI, a technique of MI, has enabled self-driving spacecraft, whereby these aforementioned artificial neural networks become multi-layered and are able to train themselves on more complex tasks. AI will help robots with repetitive tasks, that will reduce the man-hours required for space-missions and allow humans to focus on more complex decision-making and cognitive related projects.


The Robotic Arm makes it to Mars

The ‘robotic-arm’ is the seven-foot-long arm which was attached to NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. The arm includes five electrical motors and has the ability to work as a human geologist – using the same advanced tools and re-creating similar dexterity capabilities of a human hand. The ‘hand’ will combine the use of instruments and drills with a high-definition camera to analyse rocks and soil and even collect samples to eventually be sent back to Earth.


The Future of Space Robotics

NASA will be heavily focusing on RMS in the form of services, crane and rovers. Services will become humanised, with multi-arm functionality and the aforementioned remote manipulators used for servicing and assembly. The single-armed cranes used for repositioning large masses will be developed further to improve strength and agility, alongside the evolution of rovers to navigate extraterrestrial surfaces.


The Shadow Robot Company and Space

The Shadow Robot Company are also looking at space qualifying our advanced Teleoperation System and using our tech in satellite servicing and/or space debris removal. Our Teleoperation System is being developed for space as part of ANA’S AVATAR X programme with involvement from Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), making it Shadow’s third collaboration with a space agency, with the first two being NASA and ESA.


About the Organisation

The European Space Agency Space Solutions is an international organisation which arranges European space programmes to find out more about the Earth, our solar system and the Universe, providing further information on space-exploration. ESA encourages investment in space research and satellite-based technologies for worldwide benefit. Fundraising opportunities and guidance tips are available to commercialise your space-connected business ideas with a two-year incubation programme. For more information on how to apply, head over to the application page.