NASA Selects Altius Space Machines for Small Business Awards

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA has selected Altius Space Machines for two small business awards to develop interfaces that can be used by robots for assembly and maintaining structures in space.

The space agency made the awards under the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programs. Each phase I award is worth $125,000.

Under the STTR award, Altius will work with Virginia Tech to develop an universal interface that can be used for assembly in space.

The ESCHER interface is part of a larger concept working to enable swarms of robots to autonomously perform difficult construction tasks while minimizing the cost and complexity of doing so,” the proposal summary said. “The interface, designed by Altius for use on Virginia Tech’s FASER Lab robots, will leverage existing switchable electro-permanent magnet (EPM) technology and Altius custom geometries to provide a high holding force magnetic interface that uses no moving parts and no transient power.”

“The ESCHER interface aims to act as a universal interface, acting not only as the end effector for robotic manipulators, but also as an interface between modular structures, modular robots, individual robots acting as part of a swarm, and between robots and the structures they are manipulating,” the summary added.

Altius said ESCHER could be used for:

  • in-space assembly of large aperture (>20m) space telescopes
  • lunar surface manipulator system end effector
  • assembly of truss structures for persistent low Earth orbit and geosynchronous Earth orbit platforms
  • construction of temporary lunar structures
  • simplification of computational intelligence, robotics, and autonomous systems truss assembly.

Altius’ SBIR award will fund work on a different interface magnetic interface system that will allow robots to perform habitat logistics, cargo management and outfitting activities.

Astrobee P4’s functional features and those that will collect and feed operational data to ultimately assist astronauts in performing routine tasks. (Credit: NASA)

Altius plans to integrate an active EPM-based gripper head into an Astrobee robot that would be used with the company’s DogTags passive robotic magnetic interface.

“This solution is applicable to ISS, Gateway and other facilities that benefit from robotic maintenance of habitat sub-assemblies for long duration missions,” the proposal summary stated.

“For deep-space habitats, especially ones left in orbit around a destination planet or Moon, astronaut time at the habitat will be both infrequent and very valuable and it would be extremely desirable for robots to outfit the habitat prior and to allow robots to perform maintenance and logistics tasks,” the document added.

The proposal summaries are below.

Autonomous In-space Assembly
of Modular Structures
Subtopic Title: Coordination and Control of Swarms of Space Vehicles

Altius Space Machines, Inc.
Broomfield CO

Virginia Tech
VA

Principal Investigator
Eli Kopp-DeVol

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 1
End: 3

Technical Abstract

The ESCHER interface is part of a larger concept working to enable swarms of robots to autonomously perform difficult construction tasks while minimizing the cost and complexity of doing so. The interface, designed by Altius for use on Virginia Tech’s FASER Lab robots, will leverage existing switchable electropermanent magnet (EPM) technology and Altius custom geometries to provide a high holding force magnetic interface that uses no moving parts and no transient power.

The ESCHER interface aims to act as a universal interface, acting not only as the end effector for robotic manipulators, but also as an interface between modular structures, modular robots, individual robots acting as part of a swarm, and between robots and the structures they are manipulating. 

During Phase I of this project Altius will leverage their existing technologies, along with FASER’s in-house robotics and algorithm development experience to:

1) Define the mechanical and structural requirements of the ESCHER interface and develop an initial conceptual design,

2) Develop and algorithm that enables the use of the ESCHER interface to perform cooperative robotic assembly tasks,

3) Design, build, and test a brass-board level prototype of the ESCHER interface,

4) Perform an integration of the interface prototype, the developed algorithm, and the existing robotics and demonstrate basic functionality of all systems working together, and

5) Define power and data transfer needs of the interface for integration in a Phase II effort. 

The Phase II effort would aim to raise the TRL level of the interface to a 6, explore the full solution space of potential applications of the universal ESCHER interface, and finally perform a demonstration of fully autonomous cooperative assembly of a structure using the interfaces and algorithms developed through Phase I and II.

Potential NASA Applications

  • In-Space Assembly of large aperture (>20m) space telescopes
  • Lunar Surface Manipulator System (LSMS) end effector
  • Assembly of truss structures for Persistent LEO and GEO Platforms
  • Construction of temporary lunar structures
  • Simplification of CIRAS truss assembly 

Potential Non-NASA Applications

  • In-Space robotic assembly of structures for Persistent LEO/GEO Platforms
  • End effector for terrestrial robotics
  • Interface for modular structures such as scaffolding or shipping containers

Duration: 13 months

Magnetic Interfaces for IVR Logistics, Cargo Management and Outfitting
Subtopic Title: Technologies for Intra-Vehicular Activity Robotics

Altius Space Machines, Inc.
Broomfield, CO

Principal Investigator
Michael Bowker

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

For deep-space habitats, especially ones left in orbit around a destination planet or Moon, astronaut time at the habitat will be both infrequent and very valuable and it would be extremely desirable for robots to outfit the habitat prior and to allow robots to perform maintenance and logistics tasks. While theoretically it may be possible to design robots to interact with a habitat designed without robotic interactions in mind, the addition of cooperative robotic interaction features can dramatically simplify and improve the robustness of the robotic outfitting hardware. 

These robotic interaction aids ideally can serve three purposes: 

1) helping robots determine their relative pose and position with respect to the target, and their relative location/pose inside or outside the habitat,

2) identifying what the objects are, especially if the objects are mobile like soft-goods bags, and

3) simplifying physical interactions with the object, including anchoring to and manipulating the object.

To enable these types of robotic interactions, Altius proposes leveraging our existing commercially available (TRL8/9) “DogTag” grapple fixture and developing a lightweight, low-cost, passive robotic magnetic interface (IVR DogTags) that can be attached to various habitat structures and objects. We envision using our patented electropermanent magnet (EPM) based gripper for  interfacing with the IVR DogTags.

The IVR interface includes:

1) a thin ferromagnetic material layer that allows robots to magnetically grip the DogTag,

2) a long-range optical fiducial printed and attached to the DogTag’s surface that allows the robot to determine relative pose and position of the object & 

3)methods for attaching the DogTag to the desired object including rigid surfaces and soft-goods objects.

The other half of the interface is the EPM gripper, which uses an electrically switched permanent magnet with no moving parts to enable secure attachment to and release from the IVR DogTag interfaces.

Potential NASA Applications

The proposed solution provides an active electropermanent magnet (EPM) based gripper head integrated with the Astrobee and a passive robotic magnetic interface (IVR DogTags) that can be attached to various habitat structures and objects to perform IVR logistics, cargo management and outfitting activities. This solution is applicable to ISS, Gateway and other facilities that benefit from robotic maintenance of habitat sub-assemblies for long duration missions.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The proposed solution provides supports various habitat structures and objects to perform IVR logistics, cargo management and outfitting activities. This solution is applicable to commercial facilities (Axiom/Nanoracks) that would benefit from robotic maintenance of habitat sub-assemblies for long duration missions.

Duration: 6 months