7th October 2021

What we can learn from deep space automation

In a mission due back in 2023, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx aims to bring back information that will help scientists to learn about the formation and evolution of the solar system, from small samples of chemical make-up. There is a lot the manufacturing industry can take from this research. 

The space probe OSIRIS-REx has a very interesting feature: the ‘touch-and-go sample acquisition mechanism’. Which is a 3.35-metre long robotic arm, with 3 articulated joints that include a sample collecting apparatus. The reason this is so impressive is that it works entirely autonomously. 

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx is around asteroid 101955 Bennu, which is over 3 light-hours away, which means making a machine that had manual controls would be impossible as each input takes around 6 hours to make the round trip. This means that every function has to be pre-programmed by the teams at NASA, this is anything from thruster control to spacecraft orientation. 

Autonomous TAGSAM shows many similarities with the robotic arms found within manufacturing facilities. For example, FANUC creates a wide range of robotics, many of which can be operated autonomously in lights-out facilities, just like the TAGSAM does in space. 

Maintenance 

The TAGSAM is inaccessible meaning maintenance is impossible, however, a failure of just one component could mean failure of the whole mission. This means the space probe must operate maintenance-free in intense conditions for several years while the mission is taking place. To take away the need for maintenance, NASA has worked hard to create a suitable design and reach the required manufacturing quality. Along with this they have even included redundant sets of actuators and have positioned censors to reduce any risk of failure. 

It’s obviously different on earth as maintenance is possible and can in fact be an everyday activity. As manufacturers, it’s a fact of life that our automation equipment will break down. This is why the industry can learn a lot from NASA’s approach. 

It’s very common in the manufacturing industry that we will use equipment and run it until it fails. Although with new technology this means you can now add sensors to both new and old equipment, to gain a better understanding as to how it is performing. For example, using a smart connected sensor on a motor will alter production managers if the motor has become too hot, allowing them to pause the production and check the condition of the motor. This technology will allow the industry to collect data and analyse any problems across the facility. 

Taking such proactive steps means that manufacturers can limit downtime. While manufacturing lines are light-years away from NASA and OSIRIS-REx, taking the time to limit maintenance time is a technique that can only be positive to adapt to.

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