Researchers at the University of Lincoln have innovated a cutting-edge walking robot that could advance how we build technology in space.
The walking robot – dubbed the E-Walker – has already been tested for the in-space assembly of building a 25m Large Aperture Space Telescope. Additionally, a scaled-down version of the walking robot has shown potential for large construction applications on Earth. As we strive toward increasingly ambitious space construction projects, the groundbreaking robot could be instrumental in facilitating our galactic goals.
Space construction challenges
Due to the harsh conditions of space and the short lifespan of human technology, maintenance and servicing of large space equipment are essential. Extravehicular activities, robotics, and autonomous systems have been essential for a range of space services, including manufacturing, assembly, maintenance, astronomy, earth observation, and debris removal. However, relying on human builders is incredibly risky, and our current technologies are outdated.
Manu Nair, the corresponding research author and a PhD candidate at the University of Lincoln, explained: “We need to introduce sustainable, futuristic technology to support the current and growing orbital ecosystem. As the scale of space missions grows, there is a need for more extensive infrastructures in orbit. Assembly missions in space would hold one of the key responsibilities in meeting the increasing demand.”
Space experts have been aiming to employ new space telescopes with larger apertures – the diameter of the light collection region – since the launch of the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes.
However, building telescopes like the 25m LAST is not possible on Earth with our current launch vehicles due to their size limitations, meaning larger telescopes need to be assembled in space.
Nair commented: “The prospect of in-orbit commissioning of a LAST has fuelled scientific and commercial interests in deep-space astronomy and Earth observation. Although conventional space-walking robotic candidates are dexterous, they are constrained in manoeuvrability. Therefore, it is significant for future in-orbit walking robot designs to incorporate mobility features to offer access to a much larger workspace without compromising dexterity.”
Developing the E-Walker walking robot
To optimise manoeuvrability, the university researchers developed a seven degrees-of-freedom fully dexterous end-over-end walking robot called E-Walker. Their walking robot can move along a surface, performing tasks at different locations.
To assess E-Walker’s capabilities, the team performed an engineering exercise to test how well the robot assembled a 25m LAST in orbit. They compared the walking robot to the Canadarm2 and the European Robotic Arm on the International Space Station. They also created a scaled-down prototype for Earth-analogue testing and performed an additional design engineering exercise.
Nair concluded: “Our analysis shows that the proposed innovative E-Walker design is versatile and an ideal candidate for future in-orbit missions. The E-Walker would be able to extend the life cycle of a mission by carrying out routine maintenance and servicing missions post-assembly in space.
“The analysis of the scaled-down prototype identifies it to also be an ideal candidate for servicing, maintenance, and assembly operations on Earth, such as carrying out regular maintenance checks on wind turbines.”