February 28, 2024

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Building Australia’s Orbital Robotics Capabilities

Image Credits: SmartSat, Press Release

Australia’s foremost space research centre, SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre (SmartSat), is spearheading innovative research aimed at cultivating end-to-end Australian capabilities in In-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (ISAM) with a substantial investment totalling AU$ 2.3 million.

The pioneering project, underwritten by SmartSat, is dedicated to developing robotic satellite technologies designed to securely connect with other satellites for in-orbit repairs and maintenance. Led by the University of Sydney, a SmartSat research partner, and bolstered by a cohort of NSW-based industry partners, the project marks a significant advancement in addressing the complex challenges associated with servicing satellites in orbit.

In-orbit servicing presents numerous challenges, ranging from harsh space conditions to the potential risks of damaging expensive assets during docking manoeuvres. Moreover, maintaining stability during maintenance operations further compounds these challenges.

The ISAM project seeks to bridge the gap between autonomous robotic systems and the real-time, reliable close-proximity operations required for effective satellite servicing. A distinctive aspect of the project lies in its comprehensive approach, integrating all four key technology areas into one cohesive research endeavour to tackle the multifaceted challenges inherent in ISAM.

The ISAM project aims to address four critical areas of research:

  1. High-level, AI-driven onboard automation for mission operations, ensuring optimal performance of the servicing system in harsh space conditions.
  2. Advanced sensing technologies for precise far-field object detection and relative close-proximity navigation amidst challenging in-orbit lighting conditions.
  3. Development of a fault-tolerant relative navigation system capable of accurate detection and tracking despite variable lighting conditions, textureless backgrounds, and the small relative size of objects in space, all while operating within the constraints of limited hardware and computational resources.
  4. Implementation of a safe control strategy for reactionless control during robotic arm motion to stabilise the servicing satellite, thereby minimising the risk of damage to both spacecraft.

Professor Andy Koronios, Chief Executive Officer of SmartSat CRC, emphasised the critical nature of ISAM technologies for Australia’s burgeoning space industry. As the number of satellites and spacecraft in orbit continues to escalate, the likelihood of malfunctions and collisions rises proportionately. The ability to service and upgrade satellites in-situ holds immense significance for both governmental agencies and the private sector, potentially extending the lifespan of existing assets while bolstering overall operational efficiency.

The overarching goal of the ISAM project is to develop and demonstrate an end-to-end software stack encompassing the four advanced autonomy technologies. This unified code repository will serve as a foundational framework for deployment onto future satellites, thereby positioning Australia’s space industry competitively within the global ISAM arena.

Industry partners collaborating on the project will collaborate closely with the University of Sydney to integrate their respective technologies and demonstrate the feasibility of a future all-Australian satellite servicing mission.

Each partner brings unique expertise to the table: one partner specialised in AI-based perception for autonomous inspections in challenging environments, another excels in semi-autonomous control of robotic systems, a third partner specialises in spacecraft transportation and servicing, while a fourth focuses on cold welding and large robotic manipulators, and the fifth partner specialises in edge computing hardware and application management software.

Dr Xiaofeng Wu, Senior Lecturer in Space Engineering at the University of Sydney, stressed the strategic importance of developing foundational Australian ISAM capabilities. Such capabilities not only cater to Australia’s future sovereign needs but also equip local companies with cutting-edge technologies, providing them with a competitive edge in the global ISAM and broader space industry landscape.

Dr Wu asserts that Australia must lay the groundwork now to compete in the burgeoning US$ 14.3 billion ISAM market, positioning the University of Sydney as a pivotal player in establishing the country’s first integrated set of core capabilities for autonomous orbital robotics. These core capabilities will empower the Australian industry to undertake advanced, fit-for-purpose autonomous robotic satellite missions, catering to commercial, civil, and defence requirements alike.


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