Robotics and automation are playing a huge role across the rapidly evolving new space economy and value chains adjacent to space
The new space economy is being driven by more than billionaires and tourists wishing to go to the great beyond, or governments seeking to commercialize space missions.
Capital is flowing rapidly to space companies through special-purpose acquisitions companies, initial public offerings and venture capital funding, based on potential new markets and value.
But what are the specific advances in space technology that can justify such an accelerated capital infusion? Artificial intelligence has enabled a revolution in automation.
Space automation plays a major role in the rapidly changing new space economy as well as within value chains that are adjacent to space.
Space-based solutions for civil, commercial, and national security applications increasingly depend on automated systems to be self-sustaining, to generate minimal environmental impact, and to leverage decades of advances in automation at a multitude of orbits. Concurrently, robotics and automation help reduce humans’ cognitive burden and outsource critical safety and system management responsibilities in dynamic space environments.
At the Small Satellite Conference, Lt. General John Shaw from U.S. Space Command stated that the question is not about which systems should use AI and machine learning but “What do you need humans to
” The next phase in space automation will allow on-orbit servicing and manufacturing as well as data collection and analysis. This will also help clean up debris and make low Earth orbit (LEO), safer and more sustainable.
A greener planet and cleaner space
Using autonomous systems in timely development and application can create a multiplier effect. This allows multiple systems to work concurrently in orbit applications, especially when they involve the International Space Station (ISS).
The result is an increase in energy efficiency and environmental sustainability.
An automation revolution will also propel economic growth in the sectors that are adjacent to the space value chains. Companies around the globe can use predictive analytics based upon Earth observation to help them make energy resource decisions that benefit the planet.
There are compelling use cases across civil, military, and commercial sectors.
The ISS has several robotics systems. These include the one that ensures the solar panels of the station always face the sun, to the Canadarm2 system to dock spacecraft. Robotics systems are essential to the station’s ability to continue to operate and receive supplies from unmanned spacecraft.
Maintenance and assembly of the ISS are dependent on extravehicular robotics. The ISS robotics system will consist of three main manipulators, two small dexterous arm, a mobile base, and a transporter and transporter system. The systems differ in their manipulator designs and workstation control systems. This results in higher complexity and increased operational risk. However, automation is key to reducing this risk.
Robotics play a crucial role in performing spacewalks or repairs. It is therefore important to have a variety of robotics aboard the station. Until Dragon 2, which features automatic docking, robotics were the only way to transport cargo to the station.
If the ISS and other LEO platforms want to develop and improve, industry must invest more in robotics-based automated solutions. This is one way to avoid situations such as the August 2021 emergency aboard the ISS. A software glitch caused a newly-docked module unexpectedly to fire its thrusters. The ISS then spun a total of 540 degree. It then had to spin another 180 degree to return to the correct position.
This incident highlights the need to have more reliable and secure robotics solutions in the automation revolution. Automated solutions will be required to control LEO platforms and protect the only zero-G laboratory on the ISS. Similar solutions will be required to secure future LEO platforms. Increasing the number of tasks that reliable robotic systems can perform will decrease the risk to infrastructure and human lives in orbit.
Importance of AI for national security
Use cases in national security space are equally evident, though not yet as publicly demonstrated as their civil counterparts.
The U.S. Space Force set a goal of becoming a digital service, and identified many use cases for automation in digital engineering, operations and training. A greater autonomy in satellite systems is important to support multi-domain awareness, decision making, operating system upgrades, maintenance, data processing, fusion, and even evasive maneuvering away from debris and other hazards.
The Space Development Agency’s network of satellites called the transport layer will serve as the backbone for data communications. It will also connect space-based systems. Multiple manufacturers are currently producing satellites. They will be controlled and managed by automation. Automated dynamic routing and networking techniques will be used by the transport layer.
For the commercial sector automation ensures that terrestrial systems that rely on LEO satellite broadband are safe, secure and uninterrupted. Satellite communications will be increasingly used in areas with compromised terrestrial systems. Automation can increase network resilience by allowing systems to seamlessly connect and troubleshoot, without human intervention.
Enhanced satellite communications will be a technology necessity in the urban air mobility market as well as for space-based transport networks. The current terrestrial 5G networks cannot communicate with vehicles at higher elevations than several hundred feet or several thousand feet. For safe navigation and planning of the required networks, a secure downlink is necessary.
Governments should incentivize industry to invest in automation as part of an expansion of commercial space services. Space companies and governments must use machine learning and AI to speed up space operations and solve pressing problems such as space debris management.
Sita Sonty is partner and associate director for aerospace and defense at Boston Consulting Group. Troy Thomas, a managing director and partner of the firm, leads its North American defense-and security practice. Cameron Scott is the lead knowledge analyst in defense and security.
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