From flying android space bees to an autonomous submarine on another world, we unveil the robots that could change space exploration forever.
If we are to one day colonise distant worlds such as Mars, the current line of thinking is that we will need to grow plants to create a sustainable colony.
On Earth plants are pollinated by bees, but on a world where such life doesn’t exist, the problem is just how plants will spread their pollen and in turn produce fruit and seeds?
Perhaps this role will fall not to living organisms, but to tiny androids. It could be that future space explorers need look no further than RoboBees, developed by Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. These tiny robots would be able to pollinate an extraterrestrial field of crops without input from humans, taking away the laborious process of manual pollination.
Here on Earth researchers have proven that the RoboBees, which are nearly identical in size to regular bees, are able to fly successfully. The tiny wings use artificial muscles in the form of piezoelectric materials to move the wings. This means they could then transport pollen from plants. Each RoboBee weighs a miniscule 0.5 grams (0.02 ounces) meaning hundreds or even thousands could be taken on a future mission into space without taking up too much room. While the Harvard scientists haven’t announced plans to begin developing the RoboBees for use in space yet, others can already see the potential of such swarm robotics.
Researchers have published a paper on the challenges and applications of swarm robotics, in the International Journal of Engineering and Computer Science. It ponders the future of human civilisation and whether miniature robots will be used in colonies to build a suitable habitat for agriculture.
2 Android pioneer
Valkyrie is a robot intended to one day work on another world as a precursor to human explorers. The prototype is roughly the same height as a human but weighs a rather hefty 130 kilograms (287 pounds). A suite of cameras enables it to walk upright and hold tools, while a backpack means it can wander around and stay powered without needing to remain plugged into a power source.
By using a human-like design, the team behind the robot says it would be capable of traversing difficult terrain, such as on Mars, and could examine samples like rocks with ease.
It has 44 degrees of freedom, helping it mimic the actions of a human as closely as possible, while its hands can move, spin and grasp. Perhaps its best feature of all is that it can replace its limbs, swapping any dodgy arms out in a matter of minutes.
Admittedly the robot still has a long way to go to be considered as a viable future space explorer. It’s in the very early stages and will need to ultimately be autonomous, much lighter and also much more capable. However, the potential for robots like these to explore dangerous locations where humans cannot tread just yet is plain to see.
3 Flying training bots
Star Wars fans may remember in Episode IV: A New Hope, when Luke Skywalker is training to become a Jedi by protecting himself with a lightsaber from floating balls that fire lasers.
Well, that’s exactly what these robots are based on. Three of these bowling ball-sized, spherical satellites are being used inside the ISS to test autonomous rendezvous and docking manoeuvres for spacecraft. Inside the ISS the SPHERES can fly freely, attempt obstacle-avoidance, meet up with one another and more. Each robot has its own power, propulsion, computers and navigation equipment. They measure around 25 centimetres (9.8 inches) in diameter and use 12 carbon dioxide thrusters to fly around the cabin.
NASA is planning to upgrade each of them with a smartphone loaded with Google’s new 3D-mapping software, Project Tango. Using this they will be able to operate in the ISS faster than their 2.5-centimetre- (one-inch-) per-second top speed. It’s hoped the robots could perform routine tasks outside the ISS to save astronauts from making spacewalks.
4 Robonaut 2
One of the most-famous space robots of all is undoubtedly NASA’s Robonaut 2. This humanoid robot is currently resident on the ISS and the ultimate goal is for it to work with astronauts not only inside the space station, but also outside on spacewalks as well. For now, however, the robot is limited to operations inside the ISS as it lacks adequate protection to work in the cold vacuum of space. It has been designed with a huge level of dexterity. Over 350 sensors provide details of its surroundings, while its arms can move up to two metres (seven feet) per second. At the moment the robot is operated through telepresence (either a ground controller or ISS crew member controls it), but eventually it will be a totally autonomous machine.
Earlier this year, NASA sent up a pair of legs that astronauts on the ISS will attach to Robonaut 2. These extra limbs will enable it to attach to hand rails and harnesses in the ISS, just like astronauts do in order to stay secure when working with station machinery.
5 Remote-control robot mechanic
To test out exciting new developments in remote-control technology, the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) is developing Justin for ESA, an android that will soon be controlled from afar by astronauts on the ISS. Justin has four wheels, two arms, weighs about 200 kilograms (440 pounds) and is about as tall as a regular human.
It’s a humanoid robot with lightweight, articulated arms and two hands with four fingers. This makes it ideal for conducting experiments in inhospitable places. On the ISS a remote-motion system will enable an astronaut to move, in turn moving the robot in the same manner. In this way, the astronaut will be able to control the robot on the ground.
Telerobotics is one of the most exciting realms of robotics yet to be truly tapped. It involves the use of remote controls to manoeuvre a distant robot. For example, a future astronaut working in Martian orbit might be tasked with controlling a robot on the surface, eliminating the 16-minute or so time delay that would result if it were controlled from back here on Earth.
However, Justin doesn’t need a human astronaut to work – this mobile platform will have a long range and can operate autonomously if necessary. The robot is equipped with independent wheels that work in equilibrium with the upper body to provide a firm base. It has sensors and cameras that can create three-dimensional reconstructions of its environment, so it can even perform without human command. Justin is scheduled to be controlled from the ISS later this year. In the future there are plans to have a free-floating version in space that astronauts can use to fix satellites, while much further down the line, telerobots like Justin will enable us to explore worlds such as the Moon and Mars from orbit.
6 X1 Exoskeleton
Today on the ISS astronauts exercise using a number of machines that resist their movement or by running on a treadmill of sorts. NASA’s X1 robotic exoskeleton, however, will be a new exercise machine that can work in direct contrast to the superhero Iron Man. Where Tony Stark’s suit gives him superhuman strength and movement, the X1 will be used to help astronauts stay healthy in space by providing a resistive suit they can move against.
It has four motorised joints at the hips and knees and six passive joints for sidestepping, turning and pointing feet. One of the major advantages of this system – inspired by Robonaut 2 – over existing space exercise machines is that it is much smaller. This means that, perhaps on future missions to Mars, it could provide astronauts in confined spaces with a portable exercise machine. Its motion-inhibiting features can also be reversed. This could give an astronaut on the surface of Mars, for example, the superhuman strength afforded to Iron Man. Some day the same technology may be applied to help paraplegics on Earth walk again.
Imagine a future where just a single human astronaut travels on a mission to Mars, but they’re not alone – with them is a robot that can talk and act like a person, keeping the solitary human company as they work.
That’s a future the University of Tokyo, with its Kirobo android, is working towards. The small robotic companion arrived at the ISS on 9 August 2013 and, with the arrival of JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata on 7 November, scientists tested out its conversation abilities.
The robot, weighing just one kilogram (2.2 pounds), has capabilities that include voice and speech recognition and even the ability to recognise faces. ‘How did you get out here into space, Kirobo?’ asked Wakata in Japanese during a trial, which is the only language the robot speaks. ‘On Kounotori from Tanegashima,’ the robot replied. This refers to the vehicle that took the robot to the station, Kounotori 4, as well as the launch site, Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan. While it’s a primitive conversation for now, through continued research scientists hope to one day design talking robots that can keep astronauts company on missions.
8 The wall-climber inspired by nature
When thinking of the optimum design for a space-bound robot, a gecko probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But that’s exactly what ESA is working on with Abigaille, a robot that mimics the stickiness of the lizard’s feet to work in space. Researchers found the dry adhesiveness of a gecko’s foot worked even in the vacuum of space, leading them to design the small robot.
Abigaille has tiny hairs on its feet measuring about 100 to 200 nanometres across (for comparison a human hair is 100,000 nanometres in diameter) that stick to surfaces. At this scale the hairs even manage to induce atomic interactions with any surface they meet. This enables each of the six feet to stick and restick to surfaces with no debilitating effects that come with using other implements such as tape or magnets. It’s hoped that the small vehicle might be used in the future to crawl on the exterior of satellites and spacecraft. This would enable Abigaille to perform repairs or other tasks for a long time, without even needing to be maintained by an astronaut operator.
9.Titan Aerial Daughtercraft
Titan is arguably the most-desirable place in the Solar System that space scientists want to visit, as it’s the most Earth-like world within our reach. With liquid lakes on its surface, a climate system and even a thick atmosphere, experts the world over have been clamouring for a mission to Saturn’s giant moon to advance upon the pioneering but brief visit the Huygens probe made to its surface in 2005.
Step forward the Titan Aerial Daughtercraft, a proposal in the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) programme. The mission would involve sending a small quadcopter drone to Titan with a mothership, with the drone then intended to fly above the surface of this fascinating world. The drone would be capable of operating in the air and also landing on the ground to take samples. When it finally runs out of fuel it would return to its mothership to recharge. The machine would also be autonomous, meaning controllers on Earth would not need to continually give it commands like the Mars rovers. Instead it could be left to its own devices for a day, before sending all the data it had gathered back to Earth from the mothership.
In their proposal, the researchers add that the same autonomous capabilities that need to be developed for this mission could be applicable to future exploratory missions on Mars or even Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
Although there’s no set date for when this concept might take flight, fans of space exploration the world over will be hoping it eventually sees the light of day.
10 Titan Submarine
Perhaps in the future, while a drone roams about overhead on Titan, a submarine will simultaneously be exploring the largest lake on this fascinating moon’s surface. Another proposal for the NIAC programme, this autonomous vehicle would be focused on exploring the depths of the Titanian seas. These aren’t composed of water, but liquid hydrocarbons, which leaves many to ponder what is harboured in their depths.
The mission is designed as a successor to a surface-dwelling lander such as the Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), a separately proposed boat that would sail the seas of Titan. The target, Kraken Mare, is over 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) across and is thought to have a depth of about 300 metres (984 feet). The primary goal would be to learn what the seas are made of and what is in them, including the possibility of finding plant or microbial life there.
Like the drone above it, this autonomous vehicle would be able to operate on its own, perhaps returning to the surface and transmitting its data back to a mothership. This would then send information to controllers on Earth. Researchers also note a similar vehicle to this could be used to explore oceans on other worlds such as Europa.
This article first appeared in All About Space issue 30, written by Johnny O’Callaghan