NASA has selected Altius for a Phase I SBIR contract, “Low-Inertia STEM Arm (LISA) Manipulators for Assistive Free-Flyers,” to study the use of miniature STEM Arms for use on the SPHERES testbeds and for future Assistive Free-Flyers on the ISS. The SPHERES robotic free-flyers are currently used primarily for technology demonstrations in the realm of relative navigation and proximity operations, but NASA is interested in developing future free-flyers capable of offloading tasks from astronauts. These “Assistive Free-Flyers” would perform time-consuming tasks such as inventory tracking, fetching tools, inspection, emplacing sensors, etc. Astronaut time is one of the most scarce commodities on the space station, and by offloading tasks from the crew members, more time can be available for research tasks that directly contribute to the purposes of the International Space Station.
Under this Phase I effort, Altius will be developing the proposed LISA manipulators based on the deployable/retractable STEM Arm technology it has developed under internal funding and several previous NASA and DARPA contracts. These lightweight, low-inertia arms provide the dexterity needed for many complex tasks, in a simple package that minimizes the impact to control of the vehicles in free-flight. During this Phase I, Altius will be working with Aurora Flight Sciences and the MIT SPHERES Lab.
This is an exciting step for Altius. Space robotic autonomy is going to be extremely important in the upcoming years. With DARPA’s contract for servicing satellites in GEO (http://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2016-03-25) and prospects of commercial asteroid mining (http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2015/12/01/did-the-u-s-make-asteroid-mining-legal/), these advancements are extremely important for the science and technology community. It is definitely an exciting time to be an Mechanical/Aerospace Engineer.