The Robotic Arms Race: Engineering Solutions for Space Manufacturing

Software and hardware advancements are quickly turning the “Final Frontier” into the next opportunity and a couple of well-connected robotics firms are partnering to stake their claim.

The xLink space-rated robotic arm from Motiv Space Systems. (Image Source: Motiv Space Systems Inc.)

The xLink space-rated robotic arm from Motiv Space Systems. (Image Source: Motiv Space Systems Inc.)

Automated manufacturing is a highly complex set of operations that requires precise coordination, deep technical know-how and constant vigilance to maintain smooth process and production quality. It’s a challenge that not only commands company-wide focus, but the help of an entire supply chain to support it.

Now imagine trying to manage automated production in the vacuum of space. These operations would face all the traditional challenges of terrestrial manufacturing, with the added bonus of having to bring everything you need with you, working with significant limitations on energy and square footage and having to conduct maintenance and repairs in an environment that will kill you.

Automation firms all over the world are working to solve these problems as the push to find ways to industrialize space is moving from science fiction to science fact. There’s even a market segment dedicated to off-planet manufacturing: In-Space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (ISAM). Indeed, space is no longer the final frontier. With governments and private firms willing to dedicate vast sums of money to solving ISAM’s inherent issues, it has become the newest opportunity.

PickNik Robotics, a robot arm software developer, is partnering with Motiv Space Systems, a designer and manufacturer of space-rated robotic systems, motor controllers and mechanisms, to take advantage of this opportunity. The two automation firms will develop advanced robotics to try to solve many of the challenges of space manufacturing applications by integrating of PickNik’s MoveIt Studio technology for robot arm control and Motiv’s xLink robot arms.

“Our collaboration with Motiv aims to change what’s possible in future space missions, with multi-purpose robots augmenting humans in intelligent and collaborative ways previously not thought possible,” said Dave Coleman, CEO at PickNik, in a release. “Together our companies seek to engage commercial space groups and government agencies to enable the next stage of robotic capabilities.”

PickNik has spent the last 10 years developing advanced robotics control software and has received SBIR Phase 3 funding from NASA to develop advanced planning capabilities for robots in microgravity environments. Initially developed for terrestrial manufacturing, the company’s commercial-off-the-shelf product for supervised autonomy is ideally suited for space missions. PickNik has been collaborating with NASA and various commercial space companies to lead the development of Space ROS, a flight-certified version of the Robot Operating System (ROS).

Motiv Space Systems has been designing and manufacturing space systems for commercial and scientific applications for years and the company’s leadership has decades of combined experience working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory  (JPL). The 2020 Mars Perseverance Rover mission uses a robotic arm engineered by Motiv. The company’s xLink robot arm system is designed for use inside and outside spacecraft and is being developed, in collaboration with JPL, as a COLDArmrobotic system for operation in cryogenic temperatures down to -180C for operations in the permanently shadowed regions on the lunar surface.

“Together, we can realize the potential of ISAM applications to revolutionize space exploration through the use of modular hardware and software, and we look forward to future collaborations and partnerships with PickNik Robotics,” said Chris Thayer, President and CEO of Motiv Space Systems.