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Protective ‘Smart Skin’ for Space Robots

by Pieter Werner

The Danish Technological Institute (DTI) is stepping into the future with a groundbreaking new project to develop ‘smart skin’ for robots in space. The project, commissioned by the European Space Agency (ESA), aims to create protective sleeves for robotic arms, making them safer and more practical for astronauts to interact with in the challenging space environment.

With the increasing prevalence of robots in space operations, it is essential to ensure their safety and efficacy alongside their human counterparts. Factors such as space radiation, low pressure, and extreme temperature fluctuations demand robust solutions to protect these robotic helpers.

“The vision is to pave the way for more robots in space,” said Senior Consultant Christian Dalsgaard of DTI. “We will design and test a smart skin that makes robots more suitable for future space exploration.”

The ‘smart skin’ includes advanced surface sensors and alarm panels, enabling the robots to detect and avoid potential collisions with surrounding objects. This ensures they become a reliable and safe aid for astronauts.

Transportation between Earth and other celestial bodies, such as Mars, which is 57 million kilometers away, takes a substantial amount of time and resources. The new smart skin aims to safeguard the robots and prevent damage to other equipment, reducing the need for costly and time-consuming replacement missions.

The protective layer is designed to be 3D printed from soft materials, with electronics printed directly onto textiles that can move with the robot arm. This innovative use of technology also introduces new manufacturing processes for space equipment.

Dalsgaard added, “We need to investigate materials that can protect against dust, radiation, and large temperature changes. And through the use of modern 3D printing and printed electronics, we will also introduce new manufacturing processes for space equipment.”

While protective skins for robot arms are currently in use – predominantly in the food industry – these designs must be radically adapted to suit the unique and severe conditions in space, where temperatures can fluctuate between -100°C and +100°C.

“There is great potential for robots in space, where they can help with everything from scientific experiments to maintenance on space stations and extraction of valuable resources,” said DTI Director Jacob Kortbek. “It is both cheaper and less risky to send a robot instead of a human. But it requires them to be extremely robust.”

The Space Office in Denmark’s Ministry of Higher Education and Science, which facilitated the project with ESA, has received warm thanks from the DTI team. They eagerly anticipate the project’s completion, scheduled for March 2024, and the potential to push the boundaries of robotic assistance in space exploration.

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