GITAI Sending Autonomous Robot to Space Station

The robotics startup will be launching into space next year an advanced manipulator with integrated sensing and computing

3 min read
An artist's rendering of how GITAI envisions its future robots working on board the International Space Station.
This artist's rendering shows how GITAI envisions its future robots working on board the International Space Station.
Image: GITAI

We’ve been keeping a close watch on GITAI since early last year—what caught our interest initially is the history of the company, which includes a bunch of folks who started in the JSK Lab at the University of Tokyo, won the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials as SCHAFT, got swallowed by Google, narrowly avoided being swallowed by SoftBank, and are now designing robots that can work in space.

The GITAI YouTube channel has kept us more to less up to date on their progress so far, and GITAI has recently announced the next step in this effort: The deployment of one of their robots on board the International Space Station in 2021.

GITAI space robot GITAI’s S1 is a task-specific 8-degrees-of-freedom arm with an integrated sensing and computing system and 1-meter reach. Photo: GITAI

GITAI has been working on a variety of robots for space operations, the most sophisticated of which is a humanoid torso called G1, which is controlled through an immersive telepresence system. What will be launching into space next year is a more task-specific system called the S1, which is an 8-degrees-of-freedom arm with an integrated sensing and computing system that can be wall-mounted and has a 1-meter reach.

The S1 will be living on board a commercially funded, pressurized airlock-extension module called Bishop, developed by NanoRacks. Mounted on the inside of the Bishop module, the S1 will have access to a task board and a small assembly area, where it will demonstrate common crew intra-vehicular activity, or IVA—tasks like flipping switches, turning knobs, and managing cables. It’ll also do some in-space assembly, or ISA, attaching panels to create a solar array.

Here’s a demonstration of some task board activities, conducted on Earth in a mockup of Bishop:

GITAI says that “all operations conducted by the S1 GITAI robotic arm will be autonomous, followed by some teleoperations from Nanoracks’ in-house mission control.” This is interesting, because from what we’ve seen until now, GITAI has had a heavy emphasis on telepresence, with a human in the loop to get stuff done. As GITAI’s founder and CEO Sho Nakanose commented to us a year ago, “Telepresence robots have far better performance and can be made practical much quicker than autonomous robots, so first we are working on making telepresence robots practical.” 

So what’s changed? “GITAI has been concentrating on teleoperations to demonstrate the dexterity of our robot, but now it’s time to show our capabilities to do the same this time with autonomy,” Nakanose told us last week. “In an environment with minimum communication latency, it would be preferable to operate a robot more with teleoperations to enhance the capability of the robot, since with the current technology level of AI, what a robot can do autonomously is very limited. However, in an environment where the latency becomes noticeable, it would become more efficient to have a mixture of autonomy and teleoperations depending on the application. Eventually, in an ideal world, a robot will operate almost fully autonomously with minimum human cognizance.”

“In an environment where the latency becomes noticeable, it would become more efficient to have a mixture of autonomy and teleoperations depending on the application. Eventually, in an ideal world, a robot will operate almost fully autonomously with minimum human cognizance.”

Nakanose says that this mission will help GITAI to “acquire the skills, know-how, and experience necessary to prepare a robot to be ISS compatible, prov[ing] the maturity of our technology in the microgravity environment.” Success would mean conducting both IVA and ISA experiments as planned (autonomous and teleop for IVA, fully autonomous for ISA), which would be pretty awesome, but we’re told that GITAI has already received a research and development order for space robots from a private space company, and Nakanose expects that “by the mid-2020s, we will be able to show GITAI's robots working in space on an actual mission.”

NanoRacks is schedule to launch the Bishop module on SpaceX CRS-21 in November. The S1 will be launched separately in 2021, and a NASA astronaut will install the robot and then leave it alone to let it start demonstrating how work in space can be made both safer and cheaper once the humans have gotten out of the way.

The Conversation (0)

How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less