Space robotics startup GITAI and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are teaming up to produce the world’s first robotics demonstration in space by a private company. The new agreement under the JAXA Space Innovation through Partnership and Co-creation (J-SPARC) initiative aims to demonstrate the potential for robots to automate of the processing of specific tasks aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Robotics is altering many aspects of our lives in many fields and one where it is particularly attractive is in the exploration and exploitation of space. Ironically, the great strides made in manned spaceflight since the first Vostok mission lifted off in 1961 have shown that not only is supporting astronauts in orbit challenging and expensive, there are also many tasks, like microgravity experiments, where the human touch isn’t the best choice.
These tasks often require complex, precise, and subtle movements that demand either a highly specialized and expensive bespoke apparatus or a robot. The GITAI/JAXA agreement will work on ways that robots can handle maintenance, scientific experiments, and other specific tasks aboard the ISS.
Currently, GITAI is conducting autonomous control and automation in a ground mock-up of the Japanese Experiment Module “Kibo.” In the fiscal year 2021, a robotic arm will be used in the BISHOP Airlock Module on the ISS to demonstrate its ability to carry out various tasks, including operating switches, plugging in and unplugging cables, and assembling panels.
The ultimate goal is to develop robotic systems for use not only on the ISS, but also on NASA’s Gateway deep-space outpost, the Artemis program, and other government and private missions. In addition, the technology could find applications in telemedicine, disaster rescue, and other earth-side missions. In doing so, robots will not only be able to aid astronauts in their work but also help to promote private sector participation in space.
“With the aim of accelerating the development of low Earth orbit (LEO) activities including the Kibo mission, JAXA actively invites research institutes and private-sector companies in various fields in Japan to work together to create, promote, and open up the future of space utilization,” says Kazuyoshi Kawasaki, Director of Management and Integration Department, Human Spaceflight Technology Directorate, JAXA. “If this initiative gives birth to the realization of robots capable of assisting work of astronauts in the Kibo, the result will not only be increased efficiency of their work but likely also be various sophisticated researches and expanded space utilization. At the same time, advanced technologies acquired in the course of space exploitation often leads to the creation of innovations on the ground. I hope that this project will create new possibilities for space activities and that technologies emerged from this project, along with JAXA’s human spaceflight technologies and its other R&D achievements, will be leveraged extensively for private-sector space commercialization and help expand the scientific knowledge base and create new industries.”
The video below shows one of the mock-up experiments.
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