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Published: 20 October 2016

One giant leap for space robotics

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 new white paper led by Professor Yang Gao, head of Surrey Technology for Autonomous systems and Robotics (STAR) Lab.

Space Robotics and Autonomous Systems: Widening the horizon of space exploration also reveals that the rapid evolution of technologies powering space RAS will have beneficial applications in sectors such as healthcare, mining and agriculture. 

Professor Gao said: “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. This will lead to the development of robotic explorers and assistants that can carry out such complex tasks and replace humans in space or assist astronauts on a mission.” 

Such skills include equipping space robotics with sensing techniques for 3D perception, and the ability to climb, swim, dig, fly, sail, navigate and dock spacecraft without humans, as well as to interact with humans. 

The University is at the forefront of research in this area. Part of Surrey Space Centre (SSC), the STAR Lab specialises in developing contemporary robotics solutions and autonomous systems 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.

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

Bringing benefits back down to earth

While space robotics and autonomous systems are broadening what is possible in space, they are also bringing benefits closer to home.

Professor Gao explained: “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.

“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.”

Other sectors that will benefit as a direct result from the technical advancements in space robotics 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.
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