Researchers have created a cutting-edge walking robot that could revolutionize the way we build things in space. They tested the robot’s suitability for in-space assembly of a 25m Large Aperture Space Telescope. They publish their findings in Frontiers in Robotics and AI. A scaled-down prototype of the robot also showed promise for large-scale construction applications on Earth.
Maintenance and servicing of large structures are especially important in space, where the conditions are harsh and human technology has a limited lifespan. Extravehicular activities (activities performed by an astronaut outside of a spacecraft), robotics, and autonomous system solutions have been beneficial for servicing and maintenance missions, as well as assisting the space community in conducting groundbreaking research on various space missions. Robotics and autonomous systems advancements enable a wide range of in-space services. Manufacturing, assembly, maintenance, astronomy, earth observation, and debris removal are all examples.
With the numerous risks involved, relying solely on human builders is insufficient, and current technologies are becoming obsolete.
“We need to introduce sustainable, futuristic technology to support the current and growing orbital ecosystem,” said Manu Nair, PhD candidate at the University of Lincoln.
“As the scale of space missions grows, more extensive infrastructure in orbit is required.” Assembly missions in space would play a critical role in meeting the growing demand.”
Nair and his colleagues presented an innovative, dexterous walking robotic system that can be used for in-orbit assembly missions in their paper. The researchers used the robot to assemble a 25m Large Aperture Space Telescope as an example (LAST).
Putting together telescopes in orbit
Since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, the space community has been steadily moving toward the deployment of larger and more powerful telescopes with larger apertures (the diameter of the light collecting region).
Due to the limited size of our current launch vehicles, it is not possible to assemble such telescopes on Earth, such as a 25m LAST. As a result, larger telescopes should ideally be assembled in space (or in orbit).
“The prospect of in-orbit commissioning of a LAST has fueled scientific and commercial interests in deep-space astronomy and Earth observation. Although conventional space walking robotic candidates are dexterous, they are constrained in maneuverability. 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.”Manu Nair, PhD candidate at the University of Lincoln
The E-Walker robot
The researchers proposed a fully dexterous end-over-end walking robot with seven degrees of freedom (a limbed robotic system that can move along a surface to different locations to perform tasks with seven degrees of motion capabilities), or an E-Walker.
They carried out an extensive design engineering exercise to test the robot’s ability to efficiently assemble a 25m LAST in orbit. The robot was compared to the International Space Station’s existing Canadarm2 and European Robotic Arm. A scaled-down prototype for Earth-analog testing was also created, as well as another design engineering exercise.
“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.”
Yet a lot remains to be explored. The research was limited to the design engineering analysis of a full-scale and prototype model of the E-Walker. Nair explained: “The E-Walker prototyping work is now in progress at the University of Lincoln; therefore, the experimental verification and validation will be published separately.”