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Published: 14 June 2016

The changing face of space robotics

In the future, space robotics will increasingly be the key to exploring new frontiers, repairing spacecraft in orbit, and capturing space debris.

Since it costs an estimated $10,000 per kilogram to launch a satellite merely into low Earth orbit, the ability to repair spacecraft in orbit using space Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) is becoming very attractive to the rapidly expanding space industry.

"Small satellites with robotic capabilities will open up many new applications, potentially making a paradigm shift in the satellite industry." - Professor Yang Gao

The University of Surrey is at the forefront of research in this area. Part of Surrey Space Centre (SSC), the Surrey Technology for Autonomous Systems and Robotics (STAR) Lab specialises in contemporary RAS solutions for monitoring and servicing spacecraft, clearing space debris, and/or exploring new space frontiers and extra-terrestrial surfaces. These are all tasks which would be extremely dangerous and hugely expensive if performed by human astronauts without using robots.

Professor of Space Autonomous Systems Yang Gao believes we are poised for a rapid evolution of space RAS as well as a change in the way these technologies are perceived and used in the future.

“So far we’ve tended to categorise space robots based on applications – for example the orbital robots which are mainly used to perform manipulations at the space stations through remote control, or the planetary robots which often need to possess higher level autonomy as they’re sent to explore far beyond the Earth’s orbit,” she says. “The space RAS community is becoming mature over time and able to identify generic technology building blocks – such as sensing, perception, navigation, mobility and autonomy. These building blocks could be used in combination to form robots within future space missions, enabling these missions to meet highly targeted goals more efficiently.”

RAS are at the heart of some of the most innovative solutions currently being developed by major space companies in the UK such as Airbus DS and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL). These include robotic arms 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.

Another advanced technology, being developed by Surrey in collaboration with SSTL, aims to enable a large telescope to be self-assembled in Earth orbit by small satellites, vastly reducing the size and cost of the mission to launch the telescope into space. Professor Gao says, “Most satellites are currently used as ‘carriers’ of payloads; therefore small satellites with robotic capabilities will open up many new applications, potentially making a paradigm shift in the satellite industry.”

While space RAS are broadening what is possible in space, they are also bringing benefits closer to home. “Increasingly we are seeing non-space sector industries  interested in acquiring our expertise in space RAS, such as the nuclear sector which also has to deal with a high radiation, hazardous environment. We’re now developing robotic vision based software for Sellafield which can help sort and segregate nuclear waste autonomously. 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.”

Professor Gao concludes, “Today’s international space community recognises the importance of space RAS and is active in developing smarter and more cost-effective technologies to enable new space missions and applications. Surrey’s small-sat engineering approach can play an important role in this goal and be extended to achieve low-cost, high-performance space robotic and autonomous systems, repeating the success we’ve obtained with small satellite technologies over the past 37 years.”

To pay tribute to space RAS and raise public awareness, the STAR Lab is hosting a Surrey evening on Space Robotics on 30th June as part of the UK Robotics Week 2016. The event will showcase advanced RAS technologies and include guest speakers Dr William Carey (ISS Future Robotics Engineer, European Space Agency), Surrey alumna Abbie Hutty (Senior Spacecraft Structures Engineer, Airbus Defence and Space), Professor Sethu Vijayakumar (Director of Edinburgh Centre for Robotics) and David Iron (Founder of Lunar Mission One).

Two of Surrey's space robots - the Wasp Drill and RoboSat - are featured in an article in IET's Engineering and Technology magazine to mark UK Robotics Week.

Discover our programmes in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, including our Electronic Engineering with Space Systems degree programme and our MSc Space Engineering.