How A New Walking Robot Can Change The Way Construction Is Done In Space

A new walking robot can change the way construction is done in space. Researchers tested the feasibility of the robot for the in-space assembly of a 25-metre Large Aperture Space Telescope. The study describing the findings was recently published in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI. The authors have also prepared a scaled-down prototype of the robot, which could be used for large construction applications on Earth. 

Why are robots important for construction in space?

The conditions in space are extreme and human technology has a short lifespan. Therefore, maintenance and servicing of large constructions should be done in an efficient manner in space. These tasks are performed in space with the help of extravehicular activities, robotics and autonomous systems. The space community can perform ground-breaking research on various space missions with the help of robotics and autonomous systems.

The other in-space services facilitated by robotics and autonomous systems include manufacturing, maintenance, astronomy, assembly, Earth observation, and debris removal. Numerous risks are involved when human beings perform these tasks through extravehicular activities. This is why robotic systems are important to perform construction activities in space. 

In a statement released by Frontiers, Manu Nair, corresponding author on the paper, said sustainable, futuristic technology needs to be introduced to support the current and growing orbital ecosystem. 

There is a need for more extensive infrastructures in orbit because the scale of space missions is growing, he added. Assembly missions in space can help meet the increasing demand. 

The researchers introduced an innovative, dexterous walking robotic system in the paper. This system can be used for in-orbit assembly missions. The researchers tested the robot for the assembly of a 25-metre Large Aperture Space Telescope (LAST). 

How the walking robot can assemble telescopes in orbit

The space community has been continuously moving towards deploying newer and larger telescopes with larger apertures, ever since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope and James Webb Space Telescope. 

Telescopes such as the 25-metre LAST cannot be assembled on Earth with our current launch vehicles because of their limited size. Therefore, larger telescopes need to be assembled in space or in orbit. 

Nair said the prospect of in-orbit commissioning of a LAST has fuelled scientific and commercial interests in deep-space astronomy and Earth observation. 

He added that although conventional space walking robotic candidates are dexterous, they are constrained in manoeuvrability. Therefore, it is important for future in-orbit walking robot designs to incorporate mobility features to offer access to a much larger workspace without compromising dexterity, he explained.

More about the robot

The study authors proposed a seven degrees-of-freedom fully dexterous end-over-end walking robot. This is a limbed robotic system that can move along a surface to different locations to perform tasks with seven degrees of motion capabilities. A robot with seven degrees of freedom has numerous advantages because it gains a vast working space and high mobility. The seventh degree of freedom is the inevitable flexibility of all structures. A robot with seven degrees of freedom is also known as an E-Walker. 

In order to test the robot for its capabilities to efficiently assemble a 25-metre LAST in orbit, the researchers conducted an in-depth design engineering exercise. They compared the robot to the existing Canadarm2 and the European Robotic Arm on the International Space Station. They also developed a scaled down prototype of the robot for Earth-analogue testing. 

Nair explained that the analysis shows that the proposed innovative E-Walker design proves to be versatile and an ideal candidate for future in-orbit missions.

He further said that the E-Walker would be able to extend the life cycle of a mission by carrying out maintenance and service missions post assembly, in space, and that the analysis of the scaled-down prototype identifies the robot to be an ideal candidate for maintenance, servicing and assembly operations on Earth. These include carrying out maintenance checks on wind turbines. 

The prototyping work for E-Walker is in progress at University of Lincoln.