Space Robotics: New Canadarms On The Horizon

Space robots have arrived, and this isn’t science fiction. These robots are built to work, and jobs are lining up for them.

A couple of weeks ago (Oct. 11), NASA and a Florida research institute announced a joint project to create a robotic exoskeleton for humans that could both inhibit movement, for use in resistance exercise in space, or enhance movement, perhaps helping earthbound patients walk for the first time. “Robotics is playing a key role aboard the International Space Station and will be critical in our future human exploration of deep space,” said Michael Gazarik, director of NASA’s Space Technology Program.

That news follows on the heels of the unveiling by Canadian Space Agency (CSA) officials in late September of the Next-Generation Canadarms, which are lighter, more flexible, more compact and more versatile than the Canadarms that have dominated the space robotics field for decades.

Canadian officials say the next-generation robotics will help lead the way as robotics take a front-and-center role in future space missions to the moon and beyond, offering ways to clean up space debris, help build exploration outposts, and provide on-the-spot repair and service of space vehicles.

August 15, 2007 – The Canadarm and Canadarm2 work together to unload cargo from the payload bay of Space Shuttle Endeavour. Credit: NASA

The Next-Generation Large Canadarm prototype put on display at an unveiling at MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) labs in Brampton, Ontario, has the same 15-meter reach as its older sibling, Canadarm2, which resides on the International Space Station. But that’s about the main resemblance.

Not only is the next-gen prototype made of lighter materials, the aluminum and composite boom sections now telescope so it can compact itself to fit in a storage area about the size of a minivan, according to the CSA. That should accommodate use in the smaller space vehicles being designed today. To allow it to telescope, the large arm — built to use as a “test-bed” on Earth — was constructed using a technique innovated by CSA, MDA, and the National Research Council of Canada that does not require metal fasteners.

Meanwhile, the Next-Generation Small Canadarm has a mere 2.58-meter reach and is a prototype that makes use of many of the innovations used in Dextre, the robotic “handyman” aboard the space station. Also built to be used as a test-bed, the prototype small arm has a specialized suite of tools (also like Dextre) that could allow it to take on a variety of future jobs in space, like repairing or refuelling failing satellites, transferring propellant, or replacing components on other craft.

April 25, 1990 – The Canadarm grapples the Hubble Space Telescope from the payload bay of Space Shuttle Discovery to place it into orbit. Credit: NASA

MDA has filed patent applications for the multi-functional tool, propellant transfer system and refuelling tool.  In addition, the small arm has a compact controller card used to control the arm’s motors and joints that is 3-4 times smaller than Canadarm2 — which means it’s also lighter and more flexible than its predecessor.

Along with designing and building the large and small arms, a semi-autonomous docking system and mission operations station — referred to as a mini “Mission Control” — have been built to form a state-of-the-art testing facility to put the robotics through their paces in preparation for future missions. Meanwhile, NASA and the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) are using robotic space innovations in the creation of a 57-pound device called the X1 that could serve as a robotic exoskeleton for humans. Designed to wear over the body, the device can either assist or inhibit leg joint movement.

Resistance exercise has become a key focus of keeping astronauts healthy in the almost-zero gravity of space, and the X1 could be used in inhibit mode for exercise, officials said. Alternatively, the technology can be put into reverse on Earth, with a potential to help individuals walk for the first time, NASA said.

AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries, as well as health care issues. AJ blogs via Contently.com.

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