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DARPA, Energid And ATK To Initiate Satellite Recycling Program
Exciting innovations to come from the Phoenix Program’s collaborations with robotics community
By Casey Nobile


The DARPA Phoenix Program is targeted at developing entirely new systems for servicing and re-purposing the thousands of broken satellites still in geosynchronous orbit (about 22,000 miles above Earth). The program’s success will ultimately solve two major problems:

  • The disruptions caused by failed satellites, which can effect vital communications to warfighters
  • The expense of creating and launching new satellite systems to replace failed systems (it costs an average of $55 million to launch a new satellite into orbit)
  • Robotics Business Review has previously reported on the ViviSat life extension service (developed by ATK and U.S. Space), which will dock with, operate on and even propel functional or semi-functional satellites in order to increase their lifespan.

    In addition, the Phoenix Program is now recruiting companies to develop a satellite harvesting program. The goal of these missions is to robotically remove and then re-use the antennas, solar arrays and other components that tend to last long after a satellite has been de-commissioned.

    According to DARPA, the first keystone mission of the Phoenix program—scheduled for 2015—is to physically separate components from a non-working satellite using on-orbit grappling tools controlled remotely from earth. A new free-flying space system will then be configured using a smaller, ready-to-go ‘satlet’ that will be attached to the recycled component and operate independently to demonstrate the concept of space re-use.

    DARPA envisions attaching the satlets to commercial shuttles so that they can be stored in space as ‘tools’ until need for them arises.

    The Phoenix program is now looking to the robotics community for the best, most economical industrial end effectors and tool change-out mechanisms, remote imaging, tele-presence and micro-surgical technologies for use in the program.

    Central to the program’s vision are the robotic grasping arms that will manipulate unique tools to reconfigure orbiting satellite hardware. New York City-based Honeybee Robotics has recently been chosen to build two arm prototypes for docking spacecraft to one another while in orbit. The arms must be designed with many degrees of freedom and the tools they handle will be innovative. This advanced robotic manipulation system will be controlled using Energid Technologies’ Actin software.

    “From having an articulated arm in orbit to repurposing an abandoned satellite to finding new ways to launch, Phoenix is targeting many firsts.” James English, the CTO at Energid Technologies.

    The X Factor

    Back in 2010, our Analyst-at-Large, Dan Kara, reported on the importance of Energid Technologies’ Actin software for robot control. In 2005, the company released its robotics toolkit. The software for robot control and simulation is currently in release 3.0, and was developed, in part, under contract with NASA to work on Robonaut.

    “While the specific functionality of Actin is the reason for its widespread use, at a less granular level the product can be seen as an enabler for whole new classes of robotics applications. Think autonomy. Think mobility. Think manipulation. Therein lies the real focus of Energid Technologies and Actin going forward, and the future of much of the robotics industry.”Dan Kara

    For Pheonix, Actin will be extended under contract to DARPA to create Actin-X, a set of real-time libraries that can be linked to build software for real-time robot control on the servicing spacecraft. This control aims to use the extra degrees of freedom in the manipulating robot arms to optimize for strength, avoid joint limits and avoid collisions.

    “Actin enables automatic construction of control systems and simulations from CAD models, such as would be made with SolidWorks,” said James Bacon, a
    Principal Engineer on the project. “This capability seeks to allow robot designers to test concepts in just minutes and accelerate the design process for Phoenix.”

    According to Dan Kara, Actin’s strength is in the algorithms that automatically calculate motion control so that developers need only focus on the final placement of end effectors, as well as its ability to represent all control systems and mathematics in XML. It is also flexible enough to support any end effector.

    Made for development and modification, Actin’s speed and ease of use has lifted many of the common constraints involved with creating control software. Readers should stay tuned for the software advancements that are sure to result from the creation of Actin-X. Energid’s work on the project will be done in Massachusetts, Illinois, Texas, and Arizona.


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    About the author

    Casey Nobile is the lead editor for Robotics Business Review’s RBR50 news, editorial and business segment. She is also contributing writer and editor for the publication’s News & Technology columns with special emphasis on breaking news coverage for science, technology and financial transactions. Casey is also editor and contributor for other in-house publications: Robotics Trends; RoboBusiness and RoboBusiness exhibit services.

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