Energid Technologies Corporation has been funded by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to develop an innovative lightweight robot arm for use with Assistive Free-Flyers (AFF), small robotic research platforms that fly in microgravity, onboard the International Space Station (ISS). The project includes arm design, control algorithm development, and creation of simulation tools.
Use of aerial drones, the terrestrial analog of AFFs, have been on a steady rise. These aerial robots are successfully transitioning from high priced toys into robust camera and sensor platforms for commercial use. Missing, though, is a dexterous, lightweight arm and control software that will enable these platforms to directly manipulate their environment and take on new tasks.
NASA is interested in adding this capability to AFF robots onboard the ISS, and has contracted to Energid to develop a new manipulator system. An arm will allow free flyers to interact with surroundings, assist astronauts by staging workspaces, perch on handrails to save power, and accurately place sensors for monitoring.
The project will leverage Energid's expertise in robot hardware design and its Actin™ software toolkit for robot control and simulation. Energid has extensive experience in the design of lightweight robot arms through its subsidiary Robai, a company focused on light, safe, collaborative robots.
The new arm will weigh less than one pound, an achievement made possible through innovative use of materials and joint designs. Yet it will provide dexterity and sufficient force application to cover a wide range of use cases, and by using new control algorithms that coordinate arms and thrusters, it will provide acrobatic type motion.
"The robot arm we are developing will provide a vital interface between free flyers and their surroundings in the ISS," said Doug Barker, project manager on the program. "In addition to using the arms to manipulate objects, we see a lot of potential for using the arm in maneuvering the flyer. With an arm, the AFF will be able to grab and push off of other objects allowing it to move through the ISS just like astronauts do."
Energid's Actin software toolkit provides a unified control and simulation framework for mobile articulated mechanisms with many degrees of freedom, and is currently at the heart of many mission-critical robotics applications.
"Actin is versatile," said Neil Tardella, Energid's CEO. "The system being developed for NASA will use the same software Energid applies to collaborative robots for oil drilling, manufacturing, inspection, agriculture, and diverse other application domains."
Actin will also be leveraged to create a physics-based simulation of the new arm, free flyer platforms, sensors, and the ISS environment. The simulation will allow researchers to test new control strategies and demonstrate manipulation and sensing tasks before building and launching hardware.
Work on the project will take place in Massachusetts and Wisconsin. The project is funded through NASA contract NNX15CA48P.