With more than 21 years of service aboard the International Space Station, Canadarm2, along with Dextre and the Orbiter Boom Sensor System (OBSS), served as a mission-critical tool in support of the construction of the orbital outpost and its ongoing maintenance.
The robotic crew also serves as a test bed for innovative concepts enabling future space operations such as in-orbit refueling and robotic arm artificial intelligence technology.
Today, as Canadarm developer MDA works to develop Canadarm3 for the Lunar Gateway, the company is also studying the Moon closely through a partnership with Lockheed Martin and General Motors to provide robotics for a new large lunar rover – a commercial spin-off of Canadarm3 robotic advances still under development.
“MDA’s joining the industry partnership is truly an iconic moment for us,” said Holly Johnson, vice president of robotics and space operations, MDA. “We are leveraging Canadarm space technology, which stands on its own in terms of what it has enabled in human spaceflight and space exploration over the past few decades.
“Leveraging that and creating commercial spin-offs [for the lunar surface] on the heels of the development of Canadarm3 is an exciting partnership for us with Lockheed Martin and General Motors where we really believe that creating this basic infrastructure and establishing the [commercial] mobility infrastructure on the Moon is something that will not only enable government missions.
So what is this branch of MDA’s partnership with Lockheed Martin and General Motors and how does it relate to MDA’s ongoing initiatives with Canadarm3 and the Canadian Space Agency’s LEAP (Lunar Exploration Acceleration Program) rover?
The concept for the new, large lunar terrain vehicle includes a 2.5 meter long robotic arm that incorporates many internal control systems and software taken from Canadarm, Canadarm2, Dextre, OBSS and Canadarm3.
Additionally, the arm must be both controllable by the astronauts using the rover and completely autonomous to support operations when the astronauts are not present.
“When you think about robotic systems in space that have proven to be very safe to interact with astronauts, that’s a pretty key requirement. And that’s something we can build on because we’ve done it so often and are experts in the field,” Johnson noted.
But what does this interface look like in terms of crew control and total autonomy?
“The control and operation architecture is still under development,” Johnson explained. “So the teams are currently doing an optimization strategy. We will create a framework that will assess the level of autonomy required.
“If there’s a relatively simple task that can be done with prepared, repeatable interfaces in a constrained environment, that leads you in one direction.”
“If there’s a more complex task, whether or not humans are involved, that may lead you in another direction.”
And all of this knowledge and capability derives from the long history of MDA space robotics, particularly from the control and operation software developed, tested and implemented over the decades in the various arms used in NASA programs and run by NASA.
“When you look at the types of operations that Canadarm2 performs today versus what it was originally designed for, we’ve really evolved the operational modes,” Johnson noted. “We’ve evolved the types of tasks it can perform. And really, it leverages the control base and the software base that the teams have built.
Additionally, MDA has incorporated some of the upgrades designed and used on the Canadarm3 for the upcoming Lunar Gateway outpost into the new Lunar Terrain Vehicle with Lockheed Martin and General Motors.
While the new rover arm will be much smaller than the previous Canadarm, “much of the internal intelligence, control systems and control software is taken directly from past projects, including Canadarm3.”
This is a direct commercial application of Canadarm3 technology… while Canadarm3’s own development is ongoing.
Based on the history of the shuttle/station, @MDA_space started the development of #Canadarm3 for #Bridge. As the initial requirements are defined, the company is also working on the parallel development of new commercial space robotics.
By Nathan Barker (@NASA_Nerd) & myself: https://t.co/HtUMvQgWPV
— Chris G-NSF (@ChrisG_NSF) February 15, 2021
“It’s really exciting!” Johnson related. And the Canadarm3’s software isn’t the only area where it could — and probably will — help MDA’s other commercial robot arm offerings.
AI will also play a key role.
“As we look at Canadarm3, which [will be] 1,000 times further from Earth than Canadarm2, the need to adapt autonomy and artificial intelligence for this system to understand its environment, make decisions in real time, carry out tasks from a command of level up and then navigate through different scenarios…that’s critical,” Johnson says.
“And in some cases, there may be decision making that he can make. In other cases, it might stop and wait for news from Earth.
This AI is directly applicable to the need for an autonomous lunar rover arm to assess the local area so that it can pick up or interact with a target without hitting other objects or being confused by a shadow on the lunar surface.
But that raises another question: What will the end effector — the hands, so to speak — of this moon rover arm look like when it may have to pick up rocks on Monday and then use a scientific tool to study another rock? . tuesday?
“That’s a very good question, and we’ve developed a commercial line of robotic interfaces and end-effectors for just that purpose,” Johnson said.
“Having a common interface that has actuation/power/data capability that can interact with payloads, with other rovers, with different tool sets…if you have that standardized robotic interface, you can design tools and a payload.”
“So it’s kind of a versatile end-effector, complemented by different tools.”
In this way, the arm is almost universal in terms of what it can allow, as long as the tools interface correctly with the end effector. In theory, this kind of universality could allow for multiple tools to be taken on a rover — tools that the arm could individually grab to complete a task before grabbing a different tool for a different task.
“If we have a standardized interface, we can work with commercial vendors who have payloads, who have science instruments,” Johnson said. “But it won’t necessarily be up to us to provide all the exact utilities or features the customer needs.”
“The goal is to be adaptable so that we can accommodate as many of these use cases as possible.”
In other words, MDA seeks to give the industry a universal accessory from which various tools, including mission-specific tools, can be used.
And that’s really just the beginning, according to MDA. “As interest in the lunar surface grows, whether governmental or commercial, [the goal is] to consider supporting a wide range of customers for their mobility needs – NASA and Artemis are among them, but other commercial and government customers are following,” Johnson added.
The new initiative with Lockheed Martin and General Motors is separate from MDA’s ongoing participation in the Canadian Space Agency’s LEAP initiative, which aims to advance Canadian lunar technologies and activities via a lunar rover.
And, in large part, the LEAP and Gateway programs (the latter having involved the development of the Canadarm3) were designed from the perspective of the CSA to do exactly what MDA now sees — particularly with the Canadarm3: advancing the technology and industry which can then be used for commercial applications.
“You can really feel the pace of business advancement,” Johnson enthused. “And when you look at new infrastructure in orbit and ultimately as everyone turns their heads from the Moon to Mars, we really think robotics is a key enabler of space infrastructure.”
(Main image: Proposed lunar terrain vehicle concepts. Credit: Lockheed Martin)