Space exploration’s next frontier: remote-controlled robonauts
- Robonauts, which are remotely operated from Earth, are designed to handle tasks that normally would require an astronaut to go into space
- These hi-tech avatars are expected to help Nasa lower the cost of efforts to open up the International Space Station to private businesses and its Artemis mission to send astronauts back to the moon
As Japan’s second female astronaut to fly up in the Space Shuttle Discovery, Naoko Yamazaki did not expect to spend a quarter of her time dusting, feeding mice and doing other menial jobs.
It can cost more than US$430 million a year to keep an astronaut in orbit, according to three-year-old start-up called Gitai. It is only possible to keep humans alive in outer space because of the money and effort poured into ensuring their safety. One way to bring down the cost and risks is to send an avatar – a remotely controlled robot.
“There’s a need for robots that can help us,” Yamazaki, 49, said. “Eventually, we should be able to do those tasks remotely or have them take over altogether.”
As Nasa opens up the International Space Station to private businesses and embarks on the Artemis mission to send astronauts back to the moon, there is a growing recognition of the need to keep spending under control, even as space-exploration projects grow increasingly complex.
That is where avatar technologies come in. Like a drone pilot, an operator equipped with wraparound screens or a virtual-reality headset will be able to move mechanical arms or an entire robot from far away. The building blocks already exist; the trick is to bring them together with software to make it all work. That is one reason the space robotics market is projected to reach US$4.4 billion by 2023.
“Avatar technologies will advance our opportunity for research in space tremendously,” said Anousheh Ansari, the first Muslim woman to go into space. With the right technologies, “we can actually have the best of both worlds” of robots and human curiosity, intelligence and interactivity, she said.
Sho Nakanose, chief executive of Tokyo- and San Francisco-based Gitai, is betting he has the right solution. He is developing a robonaut that can be operated from Earth, handling tasks that normally would require an astronaut to go into space.
“We’ll see an era in which humans will be working in space, not just going to space,” Nakanose said. “We want our robots to create bases for Blue Origin and SpaceX.”
A former system engineer at IBM, Nakanose left to launch a technology start-up in India, and he built robots on the side for fun. Eventually, he decided that machines purpose-built to work in space had the potential to become an important business in an industry where travel costs are sky-high.
Commercial launch provider Space Exploration Technologies Corp, or SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, built its business to bring down the cost of space travel. Rockets by the Hawthorne, California-based company cost less than US$60 million per launch to low-Earth orbit, compared with more than US$400 million for a typical launch. The company also is working to slash the cost of sending humans into space and eventually establishing bases on the moon and Mars.
Competing with Musk is Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, whose own Blue Origin space company is developing its own reusable rockets to send people into space, with a long-term goal of building orbiting colonies around Earth.
Theoretically, robonauts should be able to speed up the billionaires’ lofty goals. That is why Nakanose is competing for the ANA Avatar XPrize, a global competition aimed at spurring development of the technology for use in disaster zones, underwater or other places considered too inhospitable or dangerous for humans. Indeed, Ansari backed one of the first XPrizes to spur development of affordable and reusable spacecraft.
By eliminating the need for air, heating, food and water that keeps humans alive, space developers can reduce the frequency of people-ferrying rocket launches and instead send up more avatars that can do spacewalks all the time – unlike humans – and assemble space stations, build bases and maintain spacecraft.
At its Tokyo office, Gitai has a mock-up of the interior of the International Space Station, with various plugs, shelves and equipment mounted to a wall. A robot with white arms and black hands flips switches and handles experiment samples. The movements seem almost human, probably because there is an operator 10 metres (33 feet) away, wearing a headset and gloves that transmit touch. The cost? An estimated US$300,000 to US$500,000 for each avatar.
Gitai has raised about US$4 million from Spiral Ventures and other backers to send parts of its contraptions into space next year for testing, in what will be a joint experiment with NanoRacks, a Houston-based company offering launch services and access to the International Space Station.
The start-up is one of 77 teams that cleared the first round of the XPrize competition, which ends in 2022. ANA Holdings, operator of Japan’s largest airline, is backing the contest, and US$10 million will go to the winners and finalists. “Mobility, in our definition, doesn’t require bodies,” said Akira Fukabori, who oversees the competition.
David Locke, a director at XPrize, pointed out that the use of avatars is not just limited to space development. Remote-controlled robots could be used in places that are too dangerous for people, such as a crumbled building, burning forest or a nuclear meltdown.
Still, getting an Earth-operated robot to function in outer space is a daunting challenge. Given the distances involved, there is usually a time lag, which can make operators nauseous, a similar problem seen with virtual reality machines.
To tackle the challenge, Gitai is working to make its robots partly autonomous, which would boost their skills and make it easier for humans to operate them.
Space avatars probably will not end up looking like humans, said Masahiko Inami, professor of engineering and human augmentation at the University of Tokyo. That would cost too much and be too bulky to transport into space. They will also be operating in zero gravity, which means that legs are not a necessity. “Focusing too much on making avatars look like humans might push people away from their goal.”
For example, JAXA, Japan’s space agency, developed an autonomous sphere called Int-Ball that was sent up to the space station three years ago to take pictures. Instead of having astronauts take photos, the device did the work, saving about 10 per cent of their time.
Another solution is to make it easier for robonauts to do their jobs. The Lunar Gateway, the space station being developed for the Artemis programme, will probably have lights and markers to guide robots, as well as charging stations for them, Yamazaki said. “They’ll be building an environment that’s also easier for robots to work.”