NASA's Curiosity Rover taking a selfie of itself perched atop a Martian Sand Dune

Autonomous robots to revolutionise space exploration

Autonomous robots capable of walking, swimming and climbing, will replicate insects, birds, animals and even humans on future missions of space exploration within decades, according to a white paper.

The paper, led by Professor Yang Gao, Head of Space Robotics and Autonomous Systems (STAR) Lab at the University of Surrey, states that research into robotic autonomy will make future space missions more affordable.

It cites examples like including robotic arms on space trips capable of grabbing space debris and consigning it to a recycling bin and ideas to 'modularise' spacecraft so that individual subsystem modules can be replaced if they fail.

These are all tasks which would be extremely dangerous and hugely expensive if performed by human astronauts without using robots.

The STAR Lab specialises in developing robotics solutions and autonomous systems that monitor and service spacecraft, remove space debris and explore new space frontiers and extra-terrestrial surfaces.

"Since the 1990s, a new generation of planetary exploration has travelled further into the solar system and is required to become increasingly more convincing as a human proxy in space,” Gao said.

“This will lead to the development of robotic explorers and assistants that can carry out such complex tasks that they could tangibly replace humans in space or assist astronauts on a mission."

Such skills include the ability for space robotics to be equipped with new sensing techniques in order to acquire 3D perception and to have the ability to climb, swim, dig, fly, sail, navigate and dock spacecraft without humans, as well as to interact with humans.

European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut Roberto Vittori who launched the paper, said: "Space robotics is central to the future of space exploration.

“The importance of this area of science cannot be understated, something I can personally attest to having been responsible for the space shuttle's robotic arm in the instillation of a six-tonne cosmic ray detector to the International Space Station.

“This Space Robotics white paper will be instrumental in providing a clear vision as we continue to push new boundaries in both man and unmanned spaceflight."

Autonomous technologies developed in principle for space exploration could also prove to be beneficial to other sectors such as healthcare, mining and agriculture.

This can be already seen with Europe’s ExoMars rover, where systems used to navigate on the Red Planet and collect scientific data are finding their way into applications that make oil extraction more efficient. 

"Increasingly we are seeing non-space industries interested in applying our expertise to their own areas, such as the nuclear sector which also has to deal with a high radiation, hazardous environment,” Gao said.

This was recently demonstrated in Japan’s ill-fated Fukushima power plant where specialised robots were created to retrieve radioactive material from the irradiated site. 

"We're now developing robotic vision-based software for Sellafield which can help sort and segregate nuclear waste autonomously,” Gao continued.

“Also, for the agricultural sector we've been asked to develop a small autonomous vehicle that can identify diseased crops, take high resolution images and deploy a robotic arm to take samples if required."

Other industries that will benefit according to the paper include:

  • The healthcare industry through advancements in robotic surgery, diagnostics, independent living, nursing systems, prosthetic analysis and therapy opportunities
  • The emergency services through improved responsiveness, reduced risk to life and more efficient deployment
  • The deep mining industry through enhanced exploration, excavation, refinement and health condition monitoring
  • The water industry through more efficient asset inspection, maintenance and health condition monitoring

At an estimated £7,000 per kilogram to launch a satellite merely into low Earth orbit, cost saving solutions such as the ability to repair spacecraft in orbit using space is becoming very attractive to the rapidly expanding space industry.

Last week, the UK government body Innovate UK launched a £5m competition to boost the development of autonomous systems. 

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