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space robots

The Skybot F-850 robot has arrived in the international space station

– News of September 3, 2019 –

Last Tuesday, after a few adventures, a Soyuz spacecraft docked at the International Space Station. Russia usually uses its Soyuz spaceships to take cosmonauts, while the Progress spaceships take care of the freighter. But in this Soyuz, there was no crew for the first time in 33 years. No human crew anyway.

Strapped into the captain’s seat was the Skybot F-850 humanoid robot. With a lot of sensors, the robot took measurements of all phases of the flight, ie acceleration, vibration and temperature. This mission was launched by a new version of the rocket, Soyuz 2.1a, which failed in 2015 when launching a Progress spaceship. Before making manned flights, Roscosmos is therefore sure that it is perfectly safe.

To make sure the flight conditions are ideal for humans was Skybot’s primary task. This mission was apparently a success since the robot is now in the ISS. It will stay there for two weeks before returning to Earth, which should be enough for the crew to test some of its abilities. For example, Skybot has an avatar mode. With the help of an exoskeleton and a virtual reality headset, it is possible to take control in a relatively instinctive way. It can also perform a number of simple tasks and answer questions in the manner of home automation assistants.

Skybot F-850 is not the first robot to have visited the International Space Station, and it will not be the last. On August 27, the Cimon robot built Airbus made its return to Earth. This small sphere equipped with a screen is not able to manipulate objects but it can interact with astronauts and even learn to recognize them through artificial intelligence programs. The feedback will help Airbus to develop an improved version of Cimon that will have a better ability to detect intonations and should better memorize past interactions. Skybot and Cimon are for the moment concepts. They are not expected to do real productive work in the ISS, but this is one of the long-term goals of these experiments : to relieve the human crew of certain tasks.

Last spring, NASA deployed the Astrobee system, which is closer to this goal. These three small cubic robots are capable of performing simple tasks in the International Space Station, such as taking inventory, filming astronauts during experiments, or even moving a little cargo. They move with small propellers and have an arm that can be used to attach to a rail or handle an object. With their good autonomy, they can also be controlled from the Earth or directly by a crew member.

Robots should have an important place in American projects to go back to the Moon. What we see today aboard the ISS probably foreshadows what we will see aboard the LOP-G and perhaps even at the lunar surface robots could assemble a lunar base before the arrival of a crew and then help to maintain and repair it, thus reducing the risks taken by human occupants. There is a lot of work to be done on this side, but robotics is a fast-moving field.

Humanoid space robots still have great progress to make

– News of January 13, 2019

Since 2013, NASA has been developing a humanoid robot named Valkyrie. It is the latest in a line of robots designed to help astronauts. First there were Robonaut and Robonaut 2, machines more and more complex and declined in multiple variations with legs or wheels. Robonaut 2 was even sent to the International Space Station in 2011. It was brought back to Earth in 2018 aboard a Dragon capsule and could one day return to Earth orbit.

Valkyrie does not have an opportunity to go into space yet. The robot was designed to help astronauts on Mars. So we should not need it for a long time. Yet it has features that would make it an ideal work companion. Its head includes many sensors, cameras and microphones that ensure that the robot is always aware of its surroundings. Its four-fingered hands are covered with pressure sensors to allow it to manipulate objects with a great precision. It can be connected to an external power source or draw from its battery which offers it an hour of autonomy.

Valkyrie may never go to Mars but the robots that will accompany the astronauts on the red planet could have the same silhouette. If these robots look like human beings, it is not to please science fiction fans. This avoids adding complexity to a mission. These robots must be able to work with the same tools as humans, go through the same openings, take stairs, etc. For the moment the contribution of humanoid robots for space missions remains very limited, but robotics is a rapidly evolving field. It could be different in five to ten years.

German space agency develops versatile manipulator robot

– News of November 14, 2017 –

As in many other sectors, robots are becoming increasingly important in the space industry. Among them, robotic arms are particularly appreciated by astronauts. The Canadarm 2 articulated arm and the Dextre articulated arm, both of which are installed on the International Space Station (ISS), allow, for example, heavy maintenance operations without the need for spacewalks. But these two instruments are starting to age and the field of robotics is evolving very fast. In Germany, the German Center for Aeronautics and Astronautics (DLR) has just introduced an extremely precise manipulator robot for the space industry. This robot is called Spacehand. According to its designers, its capabilities exceed those of a human hand, with its 19 engines and over 200 sensors. It is an anthropomorphic robot, that is to say that it imitates the shape of a human hand. This gives it the advantage of being able to work on almost any manipulation task that would normally be reserved for a human.

The robot is equipped with two control systems. It can either be programmed as a classic robot, or be controlled using a glove which can reproduce the movements. It was initially developed for the RSGS mission, whose launch is planned for the beginning of the decade 2020. The robot will be able to refuel and repair a satellite in geostationary orbit. In addition to this mission, Spacehand could help many other projects. In all inhabited missions, it could be useful. But such a robot could go even further, by refueling, maintaining and why not by assembling modular satellites, which should be available quickly enough. Both technologies seem to complement each other to perfection.

Given the dangers associated with the space environment, it seems logical to limit extravehicular human exits as much as possible. It is easy to imagine that within a decade or two, all the operations that push astronauts out of their space station can be done at lower risk and at a lower cost by robots. The human presence in space can then be entirely dedicated to scientific research and the realization of experiments. The growing performance of robots should also translate into increased capabilities in planetary exploration, or the exploitation of space resources.

Very few tasks require a human presence in space. The costs of developing a viable environment for humans would also be invested in designing robots that can perform the same tasks. But manned flight remains a strong symbol and the capabilities that accompany it must be preserved and developed, if one wishes one day to be able to consider colonizing other planets.

Image by NASA website.

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