Free-Flying Space Station Robot Gets Open Innovation Help

Published Feb-16-19

Crowdsourcing the design of the robotic arm of a free-flying robot for the International Space Station.

NASA, United States

The Story:

Free-Flying Space Station Robot Gets Open Innovation Help When NASA wants out-of-the-box thinking for its manned and robotic missions it regularly turns to open innovation to attract expertise from far and wide. The space agency harnesses the expertise, ingenuity and creativity of members of the public through a number of ways such as with challenges, crowdsourcing and prize-based competitions.

One of NASA's open innovation tools is the Astrobee Challenges Series which it organized in conjunction with It is a collection of 14 challenges looking for alternative ways for the robotic arm of a free-flying robot called Astrobee to attach to handrails inside the International Space Station (ISS).

Free-Flying Robot in Space

Astrobee is a compact, square-shaped robot (1 foot by 1 foot by 1 foot) that will one day fly around the ISS alongside astronauts. By carrying out a range of tasks it will free up astronauts giving them more time to conduct important research.

The design of the self-flying NASA bot was inspired by the training robot in Star Wars that was used by Luke Skywalker when he was learning how to wield a lightsaber. Astrobee will help ISS astronauts with a range of tasks including housekeeping and spacecraft monitoring as well as give mission controllers on the ground another set of eyes and ears. It is packed with cameras, sensors and a robotic perching arm.

The Astrobee open innovation challenges offered individual prizes ranging from $250 to $5000 for solutions for this attachment and orientation arm. Designs were sought for among other things, a robotic arm software architecture, a material interface surface, a deployment mechanism, an electrically driven clamp and a positioning software architecture.

In August 2018 NASA announced that it had selected winners for three of the challenges. They included Amit Biswas and his Indian-based company Triassic Robotics. The software engineer came up with a design for a simple deployment mechanism for the robotic arm that consists of a load support structure and drive mechanism and that addressed issues that NASA had highlighted. For example, achieving the position accuracy required.

“I am very passionate about robotics in general and space robotics is particularly interesting. I was excited to work on this project right from the beginning,” said Biswas.
Other awards were given for a smart positioning and attachment mechanism and a smart attachment mechanism.

Preparing for Launch

NASA has said that the winning designs may be incorporated into the finished robot. At the time of writing this article in early 2019 four prizes had been awarded for addressing Astrobee challenges. The flying robot is set to be launched to the space station during this year.

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