NASA reported a major milestone has been reached for a new robotic arm that is being tested on the International Space Station. The ISS already has robotic arms situated on the outside, such as Canadarm2, which aids in various large tasks, and the Kibo laboratory’s robotic arm that’s specifically used for experiments conducted on that module. This new arm is meant to serve general-purpose manipulations somewhat similar to the tasks that astronauts handle.
The original Canadarm launched as a component of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981. It served the purpose of maneuvering payloads out of the shuttle bay. This was under the control of astronauts within the shuttle. After 90 missions, it finally was retired and replaced by Canadarm2 on the ISS. This much more advanced robotic arm can be moved around the outside of the International Space Station, end-over-end, to aid in manipulating large objects while providing force feedback to the astronaut at the controls and using automatic collision avoidance.
The newest robotic arm to arrive on the International Space Station is the Gitai S1, a semi-autonomous robot that can operate inside or outside a spacecraft. The arm underwent testing in the new Nanoracks Bishop Airlock, the first permanent commercial addition to the ISS. The Gita S1 achieved a rating of Technology Readiness Level of 7 and the maximum is 9. This means the prototype has passed a simulated test while in space. To reach TRL 8, an actual production model must complete testing on the ground or space. TRL 9 means successful use in a real mission. The arm uses a combination of autonomous and guided operation by a ground crew to flip switches, push buttons, and even assemble technological gear, such as solar panels. The plan is for the robotic arm to handle missions that might be dangerous for astronauts.
NASA’s plan for robotic arms and even full robots is to work alongside astronauts, not to replace them. Robotic arms can serve to operate in hazardous conditions and to manipulate objects that can’t be managed by a human. Spacewalks are inherently dangerous and physically demanding. If routine maintenance and other tasks can be handled by the robotic arm, that makes life easier and safer for the astronauts. Gitai S1 is designed to manipulate switches and objects that an astronaut might also use. If astronauts were being replaced, the switches would be electronic and not physical.
In the future, robotic arms such as Gitai’s S1 and larger devices might be instrumental in work done on distant missions to the Moon or Mars, where the robot can prepare the way for human travelers. Since the Gitai S1 can handle some tasks autonomously and can be controlled remotely, it opens up this long-distance control for various missions. While further tests will be required before this robotic arm can be used in actual missions, this is a major milestone for the Gitai S1 to reach Technology Readiness Level 7.