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Walking robot design could enable large-scale construction projects in space

Image credit: DT

A state-of-the-art walking robot, dubbed E-Walker, could enable large construction projects to take place in space, scientists have said.

Researchers from the University of Lincoln have tested the feasibility of the robot for the in-space assembly of a 25m 'Large Aperture Space Telescope' (LAST), while a scaled-down prototype also showed promise for large construction applications on Earth.

Maintenance and servicing of large constructions is difficult in space because the conditions are extreme and human technology has a short lifespan. Due to the high risk factor, total reliance on human builders is not enough and current technologies are becoming outdated.

“We need to introduce sustainable, futuristic technology to support the current and growing orbital ecosystem,” said Manu Nair, a PhD candidate at the University of Lincoln and corresponding author of the study.

“As the scale of space missions grows, there is a need for more extensive infrastructures in orbit. Assembly missions in space would hold one of the key responsibilities in meeting the increasing demand.”

Ever since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, the space community has been continuously moving towards deploying newer and larger telescopes with larger apertures (the diameter of the light collecting region).

Assembling such telescopes, such as a 25m LAST, on Earth is not possible with our current launch vehicles due to their limited size. That is why larger telescopes ideally need to be assembled in space (or in orbit).

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

“Although conventional space walking robotic candidates are dexterous, they are constrained in manoeuvrability. Therefore, it is significant for future in-orbit walking robot designs to incorporate mobility features to offer access to a much larger workspace without compromising the dexterity.”

The researchers proposed a seven-degrees-of-freedom, fully dexterous, end-over-end, walking robot. The limbed robotic system can move along a surface to different locations to perform tasks with seven degrees of motion capabilities.

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

“Our analysis shows that the proposed innovative E-Walker design proves to be versatile and an ideal candidate for future in-orbit missions. The E-Walker would be able to extend the life cycle of a mission by carrying out routine maintenance and servicing missions post assembly, in space” explained Nair.

“The analysis of the scaled-down prototype identifies it to also be an ideal candidate for servicing, maintenance and assembly operations on Earth, such as carrying out regular maintenance checks on wind turbines.”

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