What’s Hard About Space Robotics? It’s Not Just the Technology, Industry Leaders Say

Among the challenges: competing with Facebook and Google, and figuring out how to integrate commercial technology into space programs

3 min read
What’s Hard About Space Robotics? It’s Not Just the Technology, Industry Leaders Say
Left to right: Joseph Parrish, Jet Propulsion Laboratory; John Lymer, Space Systems Loral; Kevin Peterson, Astrobotic; Marco Pavone, Stanford; Terry Fong, NASA
Photo: Tekla Perry

Space roboticists face plenty of challenges, but the biggest ones aren’t technical. They involve adjusting space robotics programs to a world in which the commercial sector, not the government, is ahead of the tech curve, multiple organizations have to work together, and exciting earthbound opportunities compete for engineering talent.

That was the consensus of a group of leaders in space robotics, speaking last week in San Francisco in front a small (and sold-out) group of robotics professionals and enthusiasts gathered as part a series of “influencer” salons put on by industry organization Silicon Valley Robotics. Here’s what some of the panelists had to say about the challenges they face:

Joe Parrish, deputy manager of the Mars Program Formulation Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

“There’s a revolution going on in the robotics game on Planet Earth. Twenty years ago, NASA was leading the development of robotic technology, and space applications were driving the development of new technology; that then proliferated into terrestrial applications.

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Now, we have a reversal [of that situation]. Commercial entities interested in playing in the robotics game, like Google, Apple, and Facebook, bring huge amounts of capital to it that NASA doesn’t have, and streamlined enterprises that government entities don’t have. So now the technology development is happening outside NASA. NASA was used to having technology developed in house; now we are trying to figure out what to do with this wonderful stuff that is outside.”

Terry Fong, director of NASA’s Intelligent Robotics Group

“One of the biggest challenges we face in space robotics is recruiting and maintaining good talent. Particularly in the Bay Area, there is lots of robotics activity, and you see lots of ads for jobs. We have to say, ‘Why don’t you come work for the federal government? We can’t give you stock. We can’t go public because we are already public. But we do work on projects they don’t work on anywhere else.’

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We have to build a pipeline, support STEM education, and inspire a younger generation to do engineering, when they are happy being on Facebook and tweeting. How do we convince them not only that engineering is a good profession, but that it is a noble profession and a fun profession?

Talking about the challenge of technology outside the federal government, well, “you might say there has always been technology outside, but today it is much closer to what we need. The routers we have on the space station are Cisco routers. The robots I work on, we upgraded them by adding a smartphone that we bought at Best Buy in Petaluma. But it is still a huge job. If you look at Mars... the moon... Those are hard places: really cold, a strong radiation environment. So you can’t always take commercial technology there. [The question is] how do we develop those things that are unique to our problems, that require a large investment?”

John Lymer, chief robotics engineer for Space Systems Loral

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“In georobotics, there are seven large, mature, communications satellite companies, all competing for the same customers, so it is a low-margin, high competition game. Then along comes Facebook and Google and SpaceX, and they say they are going to launch 1900 satellites into low earth orbit and take this business away. So how long is it going to take Elon [Musk] to pull the carpet out from under us? I don’t know. [Our challenge is] converting our company to [be more agile, to invest in high risk, new products].”

Kevin Peterson, chief technology officer for Astrobotic

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“Our first big challenge is landing. It’s a moon shot, literally, and as a small company, we don’t have a lot of chances. We are going to the moon, and if we screw it up, we are going under.

Our second challenge is getting everything to work together. We bring in multiple international organizations, we have nine payloads on our first vehicle, and we have to get them all together.”

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