The first mission of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars program, which is scheduled to arrive at Mars in October, is a marvel of engineering and robotic sensors.
The probe consists of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli, an entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module. The little robot contains an array of sensors designed to provide the first measurements of electric fields from the surface of the red planet.
Key among them are pressure and humidity sensors developed by Helsinki-based environmental sensor maker Vaisala Oyj in collaboration with the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI).
Their DREAMS-H and DREAMS-P sensors will provide critical data about humidity and pressure, enabling scientists to better understand the role of electric forces on dust lifting, the mechanism that initiates dust storms on Mars.
Space and industrial robotics R&D side by side
If this all sounds a world away from the advanced industrial sensors that Vaisala is best known for, you may be surprised to discover that Mars probe’s sensor chips were manufactured in Vaisala’s clean room alongside the company’s industrial sensors range.
They use the same basic designs, the same sensor materials and structures, and are constructed via the same processes.
The only important difference, said Liisa Astrom, head of offering at Vaisala, is that there has been some tailoring to fit the measurement range in different atmospheric conditions.
“Our customers often have demanding measurement needs, and reliable measurements are required for their successful operation,” she said. “Our products and systems measure and monitor temperature, humidity, dew point, pressure, carbon dioxide, moisture, and gases in oil.”
There are special demands for space applications due to radioactivity in space and the harsh environments probes must operate within. However, it turns out that with minimum modification, Vaisala’s sensors can be employed in the most extreme environments.
Those modifications include getting the electrical components “space-approved” and, in some cases, providing extra redundancy to ensure long lifetime of the electronics in the extreme conditions of space exploration.
Getting started with robotic sensors
It’s not as if the firm is a stranger to advanced robotics projects. As far back as 1994, the company delivered its first Automatic Sounding Station (Autosonde) — a robot that prepares and releases a radio sounding system for atmospheric observations without human intervention.
So how does a manufacturer of sensors used in automated devices across meteorology, semiconductor manufacturing, air conditioning, power plants, and life sciences research end up with robotic sensors on a glamorous mission to Mars?
Vaisala has been involved in cutting-edge science since its formation in 1936 by Prof. Vilho Vaisala, inventor of a radiosonde for atmospheric measurements.
“We take pride in introducing innovative and ground-breaking measurement solutions,” explained Astrom.
In the 1970s, the company released a new technology for humidity measurement consisting of a thin-film capacitive polymer sensor.
This opened up the industrial humidity measurement market for the company, with many industrial applications standing to benefit from reliable humidity sensors, said Astrom.
Vaisala’s silicon-based micromechanical pressure sensor, originally developed for the firm’s radiosonde product range, likewise found uses among industrial customers.
In life sciences, Vaisala’s sensors are used to monitor temperature and humidity conditions in research and development, production, and storage environments. The industrial measurement business has grown to be an important part of Vaisala’s portfolio, accounting for 29 percent of the company’s net sales.
Opportunities for exploration
Alongside all this terrestrial effort, for more than 30 years, Vaisala has been working in space exploration, predominantly with long-time customer and research partner FMI.
FMI measurement devices have used Vaisala sensor components on NASA expeditions to Saturn’s moon Titan in 2005, Mars Phoenix in 2008, and Mars again in 2012 onboard NASA’s Curiosity Rover.
The company’s robotic sensors have been operating onboard the International Space Station (itself a giant robot) since 1992, supporting life sciences research.
Space robotics isn’t the company’s “bread and butter,” but an opportunity for exploration and learning.
“It provides us with a unique learning opportunity on our sensors’ capabilities in extreme conditions,” explained Astrom. “Of course, we also want to support our longtime customers and partners and the scientific community doing groundbreaking work to explore and understand our universe.”
Robotic sensors for inspection
Next up for Vaisala is an online measurement device for dissolved gas analysis in high-voltage power transformers — potentially a useful addition to an inspection robot or drone’s sensor payload.
The space market offers opportunities to both established and startup robotics companies, as well as to both established players and new entrants.
Honeybee Robotics, for example, has been in operation for 30 years. The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company produces a range of robots for the medical, defense, and mining industries.
Honeybee’s expertise in developing robotic core drilling systems makes it an ideal partner for NASA, which seeks to achieve terrestrial levels of functionality in off-earth operations.
Meanwhile, companies like Astrobotic Technology are pure space robotics players. Originally spun out of Carnegie Mellon University in 2007 to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize, Astrobotic develops robotics technologies for exploration, science, tourism, resource utilization, and mining in space.
Based in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, Astrobotic is a partner with NASA through a Space Act Agreement under the Lunar CATALYST program. It has 21 prior and ongoing NASA contracts.
Astrobotic recently appointed Sharad Bhaskaran, an executive with 25 years of experience at Lockheed Martin, as its mission director.
Space exploration inspires industry
For Astrom, Vaisala’s story should inspire other companies.
“Space is a rough environment, but the basic laws of physics are equal,” she said. “If you make an extremely reliable technology for atmospheric and industrial environments, you can leverage the rising opportunities in space robotics.”
“For any company, striving for excellence in your core capability will take you a long way, and opportunities you never thought of may come your way,” said Astrom.
Furthermore, the industrialization of space via large-scale, big-budget, long time-frame space projects is creating new opportunities for sensor and robotics companies.
“For example, as satellites are launched in the quantity of thousands. They have to be built more quickly and in a more scalable way,” said Astrom. “It could be that a separate market opportunity may be forming for providers of equipment and data collection, who can sell their space technology capabilities and infrastructure to those with a business idea and need for data.”