NASA Funds Advanced Robotics R&D Projects for On-orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA has selected three research and development projects focused on developing on-orbit servicing, assembly and manufacturing technologies for continued funding under the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

NASA selected Motiv Space Systems of Pasadena, Calif., for two Phase II awards, and TRACLabs of San Antonio, Texas for one award. The awards are worth up to $750,000 apiece for projects lasting for 24 months. Both companies received smaller SBIR Phase I awards.

Motiv’s “transformative” robotic solution, CrossLink, is a fusion of the company’s existing and emerging technologies. CrossLink will feature:

  • a low-cost, mobile modular robotic manipulation system
  • high bandwidth, open architecture, plug-and-play connectivity (SpacECAT), and
  • robotic mobility and generalized tool utilization.

“Specific mission concepts include the In-Space Assembled Telescope, aggregated instrument payloads assembled on truss systems for complex science gathering, assembly of 3D printed structures, Internal Gateway Robotics, etc.,” the proposal summary said.

Motiv’s Robotic Arm Force Sensor Torque Sensing System (RAFTSS) is a space-rated load sensing system that will enable the next generation of space-borne robotic end effectors. RAFTSS will feature:

  • wide-range 6-degree-of-freedom (W6D) flight robotics servicer,
  • point of application (POA) 3-DOF load sensors, and
  • co-located electronics that not only condition the RAFTSS signals, but also processes and resolves the loads into meaningful operational loads at the point of interest (i.e. at the end effector).

TRACLab’s Autonomous Cobots to Enhance Situational Awareness (ACES) framework is designed to make it easier for operators to control remote robots.

“Teleoperating these robots remotely induces a high cognitive load on robot operators because they must manage 6 degrees of freedom in the mobile base, up to 7 degrees of freedom in the robotic arm, and additional degrees of freedom in the end-effector. To compound the issue, remote assets generally have myopic sensor feedback that does not provide sufficient information alone to maintain situational awareness for effective operations,” the proposal summary said.

“To address this issue, TRACLabs has invented a framework called ACES (Autonomous Cobots to Enhance Situational Awareness) to enhance perceptual feedback and decrease the cognitive load on remote robot operators by building upon ideas from active perception, sliding autonomy and task-level commanding,” the document added. “The resulting system autonomously positions additional robots or sensor systems not currently engaged in a task to obtain additional meaningful percepts to enhance operator situational awareness, thus increasing the likelihood of successful task completion while reducing cognitive load on crew.”

The three project summaries follow.

CrossLink
Subtopic: Autonomous Modular Assembly Technology for On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM)

Motiv Space Systems, Inc.
Pasadena, Calif.

Principal Investigator: Michael Hagman

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 3
End: 5

Duration: 24 months

Technical Abstract

Motiv Space Systems (Motiv) proposes a transformative robotic solution, CrossLink, for On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM). Crosslink is a fusion of existing and emerging technologies under development at Motiv. For OSAM activities to realize their full potential, robotic systems of the future must improve in a number of key areas. CrossLink will enable future OSAM activities through:

  • Low-Cost, Mobile, Modular Robotic Manipulation System
    • The CrossLink robotic system will be architected utilizing the xLink robotic arm architecture as its basis. xLink is designed to be a highly modular, easy to re-configure system, and as such the previously designed components can be shared across both xLink and CrossLink.
  • High Bandwidth, Open Architecture, Plug-and-Play Connectivity (SpacECAT)
    • Based upon Motiv’s ground robotics products, an EtherCAT communication architecture will be developed and prototyped on direct path to flight hardware utilizing Motiv’s Flight DELTA motor controller. This new SpaceECAT architecture will provide high speed and bandwidth communication across the CrossLink Robotic Arm tools, mobility, and tasks as well as any other on orbit SpaceECAT enabled devices. Furthermore, this will enable the use of Motiv’s ROS control tools to be used for flight systems.
  • Robotic Mobility and Generalized Tool Utilization
    • The grappling end-effector will enable the mobility and tool use of the CrossLink system. The end-effector acts as both a structural and electrical connection for passing power and communication signals to the spacecraft and other SpacECAT enabled tools/devices.

Potential NASA Applications

NASA’s OSAM programs are developing ever sophisticated robotic technologies and tools. An emphasis on modularity, scalability and affordability is growing within the community. The CrossLink addresses each of these points of emphasis and provides options for NASA in its pursuit of assembly activities on orbit. Specific mission concepts include the In-Space Assembled Telescope, aggregated instrument payloads assembled on truss systems for complex science gathering, assembly of 3D printed structures, Internal Gateway Robotics, etc.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

As NASA and other government agencies create mission roadmaps for OSAM related activities, commercial entities are building business plans to create an industrial operated sector complete with services. The CrossLink can support mission services including space tugs, material transfer between depots, and on-orbit construction of integrated systems following multiple launches.

Robotic Arm Force Torque Sensing System (RAFTSS)
Subtopic: Satellite Servicing Technologies

Motiv Space Systems, Inc.
Pasadena, Calif.

Principal Investigator: Chris Schad

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 3
End: 5

Duration: 24 months

Technical Abstract

Motiv Space Systems (Motiv) proposes a novel, space-rated, load sensing system that will enable the next generation of space-borne robotic end effectors: The Robotic Arm Force Sensor Torque Sensing System (RAFTSS).

Because the RAFTSS is designed with robotic, space-based applications as the primary application, it will advance the current state of the art in on-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacturing. The novel solutions in the RAFTSS system includes:

  • Wide-Range 6-Degree-of-Freedom (W6D) FTS. This sensor can be conceptually thought of as the “wrist” sensor. It can sense a broad range of imparted loads incurred during servicing and contact/capture operations (tens to hundreds of Newtons) with overload capabilities of 100 times the sensing range.
  • Point of Application (POA) 3-DOF load sensors. These sensors can be thought of as the “fingertip” sensors of RAFTSS that are integrated directly into a tool or end effector gripper. Their load sensing ranges and axes can be tailor designed to directly measure minute loads imparted by delicate servicing operations or low mass payload acquisition operations (tens of Newtons).
  • Co-located electronics that not only condition the RAFTSS signals, but also processes and resolves the loads into meaningful operational loads at the point of interest (i.e. at the end effector).

This collaborative sensing approach addresses the primary challenges typically associated with force torque sensing systems. More specifically, designing systems capable of achieving accuracies and sensitivities at levels sufficient to support mission objectives while being robust enough to handle overload conditions typically associated with launch environmments and large masses integrated at the distal end of robotics has been challenging.

Potential NASA Applications

Force torque sensors are critical components in autonomous, or semi-autonomous, robotic systems. As NASA pushes towards an increased use of autonomous robots in space, the RAFTSS will solve the pressing need for high sensitivity with high overload capability seen in almost every space robotics application. The NASA based market includes a broad swath of mission applications from on-orbit manipulation for servicing applications to sample capture needs for remote planetary sample and return missions.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The non-NASA space market includes both private space companies and foreign space agencies. Private companies are increasingly taking roles in on-orbit assembly, debris removal, and satellite servicing tasks. These tasks require the use of advanced robotic systems which could benefit from the inclusion of the RAFTSS system.

Autonomous Cobots to Enhance Situational Awareness
Subtopic: Autonomous Modular Assembly Technology for On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM)

TRACLabs, Inc.
San Antonio, Texas

Principal Investigator: Dr. Michael Lanighan

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 4
End: 6

Duration: 24 months

Technical Abstract

Robotic technologies are expected to support the Artemis missions in numerous ways, from lander site preparation to various construction and lander logistic tasks in orbit and on the lunar surface. Controlling these remote assets effectively confronts a longstanding problem in robotics.

Teleoperating these robots remotely induces a high cognitive load on robot operators because they must manage 6 degrees of freedom in the mobile base, up to 7 degrees of freedom in the robotic arm, and additional degrees of freedom in the end-effector. To compound the issue, remote assets generally have myopic sensor feedback that does not provide sufficient information alone to maintain situational awareness for effective operations.

As such, operators must also control any additional sensor apparatus or robots used to maintain situational awareness. Situational awareness has a large impact on mission outcome-salient information fused and appropriately displayed to a remote operator has shown to result in higher mission success. However, reconfiguring a multi-agent system to increase situational awareness will further burden crew workload as operators will need to manually allocate and position additional resources to obtain requisite views.

To address this issue, TRACLabs has invented a framework called ACES (Autonomous Cobots to Enhance Situational Awareness) to enhance perceptual feedback and decrease the cognitive load on remote robot operators by building upon ideas from active perception, sliding autonomy and task-level commanding. The resulting system autonomously positions additional robots or sensor systems not currently engaged in a task to obtain additional meaningful percepts to enhance operator situational awareness, thus increasing the likelihood of successful task completion while reducing cognitive load on crew.

Potential NASA Applications

Multiple near-term and future NASA missions and projects could benefit from the advances we expect to see over the lifetime of this project, including:

  • LANDO – NASA ECI project starting 10/1/2021
  • MMPACT – Moon to Mars Planetary Autonomous Construction Technology
  • PASS – Persistent Assembled Space Structures
  • LSMS – Ongoing effort to further develop and demonstrate the LSMS (Lunar Surface Manipulation System)
  • OSAM – On-orbit Service Assembly and Manufacturing efforts
  • iSAT – in-Space Assembled Telescope
  • Artemis

Potential Non-NASA Applications

OSAM efforts of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Space Vehicles (RV) division; DARPA RSGS; Commercial Space Companies; Inspection/verification for remote facilities for Energy, Automotive, and Chemical Manufacturing sectors.