This becomes a problem when they are damaged, need an upgrade or just run out of battery because they instantly transform from a costly imaging or broadcasting device into potentially hazardous space debris.
It’s an issue that Australian inventors at Sydney’s ANT61 have found the answer to, as they prepare a space handyman to repair dead and dying satellites.
The company is led by chief executive officer and founder Mikhail Asavkin, who has worked with Skychute, Fact Read, and notably with the GLONASS global navigation satellite system.
The five-person team has already created an as-yet unnamed satellite arm designed to unscrew and connect parts onto satellites while still in orbit.
“This is a robot that works with fasteners. This is a core skill if you want to repair or assemble something, working with fasteners is a very first step on that journey.
“We built a robot that can look around the part, find where all the screws are, go and unscrew them.
“It has cameras and sensors, even if we move the part, it can still figure out where the screw is by moving around and looks from all different directions to recognise the screws, or what they look like from all different directions. Unlike the robots that are in factories, we need it programmed to know exactly where the screw is (to achieve success).
“It’s very important for us to have that mechanism (for unscrewing fasteners) that does not depend on magnets or vacuum. So, we had to come up with a different way of retaining the screws.
“Getting inside the satellite is quite complex operation and often many problems can be solved by just slapping a new battery to a wall. If something like a battery breaks down, we just can bring the new battery, can fasten it to the wall and connect the wires to satellite, and the satellite will get another 10 to 15 years of usefulness.”
Asavkin said the team had used machine learning and different light reflection to train the robot to recognise screws from different directions and pinpoint them through a rewards program.
“We want to actually train them rather than program them. The more the robot works, the more fasteners it does, the more rewards and the better it becomes at the finding process.
“It’s kind of like you’re training a dog and you give it to reward when it does it correctly. Luckily for us, the reward for a machine is just number and we decide what that number is.
A supply chain already exists by renting an area of a space station as an operating base for ANT61’s maintenance-style robotics, according to Asavkin.
“ANT61 was born out with this idea that we are on the brink of the next technological revolution,” he said.
“On one hand, humanity is going to space but also we need to start to take better care for people, so we don’t put them in harm’s way.”
Asavkin said the team is focusing on the next generation of semi-autonomous robotics rather than remote-controlled versions.
“We want robots that are smart ... we just give them a list of high-level instructions for the day, and they just do the work. This is where it all started,” he said.
“This technology can be applied in environments that are super hazardous. Space, for example, is a place that nobody wants to go and mess with satellites in orbit because it’s very expensive and dangerous.
“Obviously, there’s a problem of collecting all the space debris that’s already there, but we’re trying to see if we can give them a second life rather than trying to pull them to Earth and burn them with all that expensive hardware. Can we just go there and just give them a new 10 years of useful life by resupplying them?”
ANT61 has made appearances at the 2023 National Space Industry Hub Expo, Australian Space Forum, and the re:MARS conference in Las Vegas.
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