Ready for the future
Robotics laboratory tests fitness of key technologies for future space applications
The Airbus Defence and Space site in Bremen is playing an increasingly important role in European space robotics. As Dr Peter Kyr, who heads the Airbus Defence and Space robotics laboratory in Bremen, explains: “We are ready to meet the challenges of all future space missions, whatever their destination or purpose. If the European Space Agency or any of its international counterparts wants to fly to the Moon or Mars, or recover space debris, or repair satellites, Airbus Defence and Space is ready to take a leading role in shaping these missions by virtue of its extensive skills and know-how.” And robotics is a key domain in which Airbus Defence and Space excels.
Over the course of many decades, the robotics experts in Bremen have built up an impressive pool of knowledge. In successive projects, starting with the development of the Rokviss robotic arm for the ISS, the ATV automated transport vehicle, and the development of landing technologies, Airbus Defence and Space has continuously added to its know-how in the field of space robotics.
The results obtained from simulations flow into the development process for new control algorithms. This enables the robotics laboratory engineers to test the system as a whole by monitoring all of its interfaces – to robotic devices, to sensors, to the central control unit, and to the ground stations.
The robotics laboratory in Bremen has evolved into an international centre of excellence where robotics technologies are developed for innumerable applications in diverse missions, studies and research projects. “We have succeeded in building up enough trusted expertise here to become established for the long term as one of the world’s leading experts in space robotics,” says Dr Peter Kyr. There are two areas in particular in which robotics from Bremen are deployed: one is space exploration, the other is satellite servicing and debris removal. Airbus Defence and Space orients the focus of its work to the objectives of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), which just recently cited space robotics as one of the topics of greatest significance to the German space industry. Airbus Defence and Space intends to play a decisive role in shaping future progress, not only in its home market but also on an international scale.”
Engineers Manfred Dörmer (left) and Ralf Regele, adjusting the position of a seven-part articulated robotic arm for a new test installation in the Bremen laboratory. The special feature of this technology is its ability to compensate for unexpected recoil effects or uncontrolled movements by the target object, enabling the arm to grasp the object gently.
One of the reasons behind the increased worldwide interest in space robotics is the ever growing number of satellites and items of space debris in orbit around Earth – a situation which augments the risk of collisions. So far, nobody has been able to come up with a viable solution to the problem of recovering damaged or inoperable satellites from these heavily populated orbits. The systems being developed by Airbus Defence and Space are intended to satisfy this unmet need, and it is in Bremen that the necessary technologies are being tested and qualified. A typical recovery mission includes locating and manoeuvring into the vicinity of a tumbling satellite, then capturing and manipulating it without causing any further damage, and finally repairing the satellite or removing it safely from orbit.
What would normally be standard office space looks very different at the Airbus Defence and Space site in Bremen – with its models of future Moon rovers, satellite structures and articulated robotic arms standing in front of a wall painted to simulate a lunar landscape. This is where the robotic systems of the future are being developed.
Airbus Defence and Space has built up its pool of expertise through participation in a number of recent studies, both ongoing and completed, in which the company often worked in close collaboration with DLR, the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI), and other research institutions and scientific groups. The most notable projects include the preparatory phase of the German Orbital Servicing Mission (DEOS), participation in the RTES study (Robotic Technologies for Removing Space Debris) designed to follow up the results of the INVERITAS (Innovative Technologies for Relative Navigation and Capture) collaborative research project, and the Heavy Active Debris Removal (HADR) study, which was financed in-house.
Airbus Defence and Space intends to demonstrate its expertise and build up new skills by developing innovative robotics technologies for future satellite servicing and debris removal missions. This photo shows engineers Manfred Dörmer, Ralf Regele and Pau Vilimelis Aceituno (from left) calibrating the sensor components necessary for accurately guiding the approach to out-of-service satellites.
The competence team at the robotics laboratory in Bremen also leads the field in technological research for space exploration. Airbus Defence and Space’s expertise is in great demand for planned European missions to the Moon, to Mars, or to passing asteroids, as well as for support to astronauts during their sojourn in space.
“In our estimation, space robotics is set to become the next big issue, alongside space exploration and the growing demand for satellite recovery and other services,” says Dr Peter Kyr. Whatever the challenge, the robotics laboratory in Bremen is prepared to meet it.