Canada Taking Next Steps to Continue Leadership of Robotic Manipulators for Future Space Missions

MDA's CTO Cameron Ower stands next to satellite servicing robotic technology. Credit: SpaceQ.

The Canadian Space Agency has released a request for proposals (RFP) that would continue work on robotic manipulators that could eventually be used in future deep space missions, on other planets, the moon and closer to home for satellite servicing and even possibly on commercial space stations.

The RFP titled Development of enabling space technologies actually supersedes the Dexterous Interface and Tool For Planetary and Deep Space solicitation which was released April 18, 2017.

The RFP is specifically designed to continue work on Priority Technology 10, a Dexterous Interface and Tool For Planetary and Deep Space.

RFP Background

According to the RFP backgrounder;

“Canada is a pioneer in space robotics for its renowned contribution to the development of a variety of space robotic manipulators including the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS), the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS), the Dextre, and the Orbital Express Dexterous Manipulator System, as well as the Next Generation Canadarms. Based on this established heritage in space robotics, Canada has also prepared for future space missions that require extensive use of robotic technologies.”

“A manipulator is often equipped with complex tools to perform desirable operations. For instance, the Robotics Refueling Mission (RRM) used Dextre to simulate robotics servicing of a NASA unprepared client satellite on ISS. The RRM payload consisted of a main body that included worksites hosting representative satellite interfaces for coolant, fuelling, power, and data transfer and video. In order for Dextre to perform the necessary tasks, specialized tools were required to act as interfaces between Dextre’s Orbital Replaceable Unit (ORU) Tool Change-Out Mechanisms (OTCMs) and the multiple worksite types integrated into the RRM. Such a tool is often mission-specific. The tool developed for one mission is therefore not transferrable or reusable for other similar missions. As a result, increasing mission cost became inevitable.”

“The current and evolving Global Exploration Roadmap calls for several missions classes Beyond Low Earth Orbit. In order to support some of these missions, the ability to manipulate small payloads on planetary surfaces and in deep space is important. As missions become increasingly interdependent there is also a need for common interfaces that allow for the differing manipulators to handle the same payload.”

“For example, a lunar mission may have a robotic system to manipulate a sample canister for insertion into a lunar ascent vehicle. That vehicle once docked to the DSG (Deep Space Gateway) would require another manipulator to transfer that sample canister from the lunar ascent vehicle to either the DSG or an earth bound vehicle. Given the drastically larger launch costs associated with delivering equipment Beyond Low Earth Orbit, and larger still launch costs for lunar return missions there is a strong need for these robotic system to be compatible and for the needed interfaces to be of minimal mass.”

“However, Canada has not yet developed such technologies with a reasonably high TRL suitable for deep space or planetary missions ready for space flights. This is the purpose of this work: to develop the key elements needed to manipulate small payloads robotically.”

Spacecraft robotics. Common Mounting Platform.
Credit: Canadian Space Agency.
Spacecraft robotics - Direct mounting of an ORU/Payload
Credit: Canadian Space Agency.

“Notionally this consists of a Dextrous End Effector (DEE) at the end of a robotic arm; a Dextrous Grapple Fixture (DGF) attached to a payload/ORU; the ORU Mounting Platform (OMP) with an integrated means to grasp, stow and release the ORU from the final element the ORU Receptacle Base (ORB) attached to the structure.”

“Two main approaches consist of a common platform where an ORU/payload is mounted to (Figure 1), and a direct mounting approach (Figure 2). Both of these are also shown in context, circled in Figure 3.”

CSA Examples of robotic fixtures
Credit: Canadian Space Agency.

“Both the common and specific (aka direct) mounting platforms are in use on the International Space Station (ISS). The direct mounting platform can be optimized for specific payloads at the expense of increased complexity both in operations and overall system mass as each unique interface must be accommodated for in storage, transit and spares. The common platform however can be overdesigned for low mass payloads when having to withstand the launch forces of the high end of the “small’ payload range of roughly 1 to 150 kg.”

“The targeted technology development is expected to fully reach TRL 4+ (i.e.,only for lunar regolith exposure) as a minimum upon the completion of the project.”

“The development of this manipulator capability will advance the TRL of this Canadian robotics technology and could give Canada the opportunity to maintain Canada’s competitive edge in building future space robotic manipulators. Maintaining Canada’s lead in robotic manipulator technologies promises a rich scientific and commercial return, while securing Canada’s highly visible and critical participation in the next era of exploration activities.”

“Canada, as a partner in the ISS, has undertaken important discussions with the partnership to determine the next step for human exploration. Current common long term goals include the human exploration of Mars and Lunar missions. One step towards this long term goal is demonstrating and proving technologies beyond the ISS. The partnership is discussing a space platform: a deep-space habitat, in a lunar orbit that will extend human presence and further demonstrate and prove technologies and operations at a larger distance from Earth.”

Targeted Missions

According to the RFP “the specific mission classes that could directly benefit from this development are”:

  • Deep Space Gateway (DSG)
  • Planetary exploration missions (on-planet sampling, sample return)

“The intent of this development is to create a solution that meets the emerging international standard for external robotics. Such a standard is anticipated to allow for broader adaptation and use than the listed missions above. This can include, but is not limited to”:

  • Commercial space
  • Orbital satellite servicing
  • Mars sample return
  • Asteroid sample return
  • In-Situ resource utilization
  • Etc.

The Takeaway

The key takeaway from this RFP is that Canada continues to make small investments in key technologies that would keep Canada positioned to be in the critical path of possible future international deep space missions as well as having commercial spin-off potential.

The deadline for proposals is February 6 and the maximum value of the contract is $1.7M.

About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20+ years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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