NASA is not alone here. At the European Space Research and Technology
Center (ESTEC), the research center
for the European Space Agency (ESA)
in The Netherlands, engineers are
planning to develop ground robot assistants that could be teleoperated by
astronauts orbiting a moon or planet
or based in a space station like the ISS,
or NASA’s planned Lunar Orbital Plat-form-Gateway. Such robots could perform the kind of reconnaissance Fong
suggests, but equally, says Thomas
Krueger, a robotics systems and software engineer in ESTEC’s Human-Ro-bot Interaction Lab, they could be used
to build and maintain infrastructure
for a planetary habitat.
For the moment, however, such
planetary surface robotic assistants
are research projects, and the drive for
greater robotically fueled efficiency
in crewed spaceflight has begun at a
much more modest level. It kicked
off in May 2006 with the introduction
to the International Space Station of
FROM FREE-FLYING DROIDS to humanoids, from crawlers to inflatable torsos, space ro- bots of myriad types are now being considered for missions in low Earth orbit, on interplanetary spacecraft, and on other worlds.
It might sound like a prop list from
a Star Wars movie, but space agencies
and their contractors are developing a
panoply of robotic assistants with a serious aim in mind: to boost the productivity and safety of astronauts.
The idea behind robot assistants
is multifaceted: one aim is to offload
time-consuming repetitive tasks like
space station cleaning and inventory
making from crew members to free-flying or humanoid robots. Ground
robots controlled from, say, spacecraft
orbiting the Moon or Mars could construct human habitats ahead of a landing, or perform reconnaissance ahead
of human exploration missions.
In addition, the dangers of space
junk, as well as the risks of cosmic radiation exposure and depressurization
during spacewalks, could be quelled if
a humanoid robot does the work, controlled by an exoskeleton-wearing astronaut more safely ensconced within
At the heart of this drive for robotic
assistance is the fact that robots need
few of the quickly depleted resources
astronauts burn up so very readily—
principally oxygen, water, and power.
The hope is that by taking on the drudge
work of space, robots should be able to
save spacefarers time, giving them the
chance to focus on the parts of missions requiring human intelligence.
What kind of missions are being en-
visioned for robots? Terry Fong, direc-
tor of the Intelligent Robotics Group
at the NASA Ames Research Center
near San Francisco, sees a signature
example in a startling discovery made
on the lunar surface in December 1972.
“On Apollo 17’s second extravehicular
activity (EVA), astronaut Jack Schmitt
found orange volcanic glass at the
Shorty crater. It was certainly one of,
if not the most interesting, discoveries
made by Apollo 17,” says Fong.
“But when they found it, they were
three-quarters of the way through their
excursion, and they had limited time
because of their oxygen and power lev-
els, and they had to get back to the lu-
nar module,” he says. As a result, they
had to rush their investigation.
However, if the Apollo 17 crew had
been able to deploy some robotic re-
connaissance to scout the area ahead
of time, says Fong, “They could have
changed the timing, they could have
changed the route, they could have
gone there first and spent more time
there,” he says.
This should inform similar future
missions, he says. “This would allow
the humans to be a lot more efficient
when they do go and do their work.”
Robots Aim to Boost
A multitude of robotic assistants for astronauts and rovers are in
development to make space exploration more resource-efficient.
Technology | DOI: 10.1145/3365585 Paul Marks
NASA Expedition 60 flight engineer Christina Koch with the SPHERES robots on the
International Space Station.