For decades, satellites have used slowly changing technologies to transmit radio and TV channels to earth, monitor the environment, or explore the universe. But nowadays, companies such as Société Européenne des Satellites (SES), operating more than 50 communication satellites, have to deal with rapidly changing communication technologies. They either have to replace or adapt their satellites in order to keep up with their competitors. Hence, a growing demand towards on-orbit servicing and orbital robotics is currently observed, in particular in the US including research, but also commercial activities. In collaboration with the space industry, NASA plans, for example, the Restore-L mission in 2020 and DARPA the RSGS mission in 2021. Orbital ATK is planning to provide life extension services for Intelsat, Effective Space Solutions is offering life-extension and other services, and Canada-based MDA is considering a return to in-orbit servicing with Space Systems Loral of Palo Alto, California.
The current space robots on the ISS have primarily focused on moving equipment and supplies, as well as servicing instruments and other payloads attached to the space station in a teleoperated mode. In recent years, the worldwide demand for more dexterous space robots is increasing significantly. The new large scale space mission scenarios for the Post-ISS era, e.g. Moon Village (ESA), Mars exploration (NASA), Orbital Hub in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) of DLR, CIS-Lunar (NASA, Roscosmos), and a high-tech lunar base including human habitats, science, and tech labs (Roscosmos) require space robot systems for the ambitious mission goals.
The tasks space robots have to perform are comparable to the tasks of industrial applications on earth. The space robot systems have to perform assembly, construction, maintenance, servicing, and other tasks that may or may not have been fully understood at the time of the design of the robot. Robots have to be capable of working standalone as well as in teams with other robots or humans to, for example, support astronauts during EVAs.
To address the above challenges, the institute sets a strong focus on interdisciplinary development of new space robot technologies. This includes the preparation of and participation in nationally and internationally funded space projects and missions, as well as the development of arms for space applications, articulated space hands, and, of course application software. Following the paradigm shift in terrestrial robotics, space robots need to be less voluminous, lightweight and more dexterous. They have to be equipped with force-torque sensors, stereo cameras and other sensor systems.
In contrast to terrestrial robotics, assembly, construction, maintenance, servicing or other tasks have to reliably work under μg conditions, extremely changing illumination conditions, and limited computing power on-board. Hence, current application developments have to be adapted to those space requirements or even have to be developed from scratch.