Altius Space Machines Selected for SBIR Phase I Award

LISA Manipulators attached to a free-flying robot. (Credit: Altius Space Machines)
LISA Manipulators attached to a free-flying robot. (Credit: Altius Space Machines)

NASA has selected Altius Space Machines for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I award to develop a system that would allow International Space Station (ISS) crew members to off-load some of their menial tasks to robots.

Altius is developing low-inertia STEM arm (LISA) manipulators for use on SPHERES robots that are now being used aboard the space station. SPHERES are currently being used as testbeds for relative navigation and proximity operations, but NASA is interested in developing them to assist astronauts with various tasks.

“These ‘Assistive Free-Flyers’ would perform time-consuming tasks such as inventory tracking, fetching tools, inspection, emplacing sensors, etc.,” Altius wrote on its website blog. “Astronaut time is one of the most scarce commodities on the space station, and by offloading tasks from the crew members, more time can be available for research tasks that directly contribute to the purposes of the International Space Station.”

SBIR Phase I feasibility studies are for six months and a maximum of $125,000. Firms that successfully complete this phase are eligible to submit a proposal for Phase II proposal, during which selectees will expand on the results of the developments in Phase I. Phase III awards examine the commercialization of Phase II results and requires the use of private sector, non-SBIR, funding.

The proposal follows.

Low-Inertia STEM Arm (LISA) Manipulators
for Assistive Free-Flyers

Subtopic: Payload Technologies for Assistive Free-Flyers

Altius Space Machines, Inc.
Broomfield, CO

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Mr. Jonathan Goff

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 3

Technical Abstract

Altius Space Machines proposes the development of lightweight robotic manipulators, that utilize rollable composite STEM booms to provide a prismatic extension/retraction DOF, as robot arms for Assistive Free-Flyers (AFFs) on the International Space Station. These Low-Inertia STEM Arm (LISA) manipulators can provide comparable or better manipulation capabilities to AFFs than traditional robotic manipulators, but with less mass, lower inertial, better stowability, and the ability to reach into very hard-to-access locations. In Phase I, Altius and its partners will gather potential use cases for manipulator-equipped AFFs, derive system requirements and develop a conceptual design for the LISA manipulators, and develop a proof-of-concept prototype of the small STEM boom deployers for the LISA manipulators. This will raise the system TRL from 2 to 3. In Phase II, Altius and its partners will develop a prototype flight-set of LISA manipulators and interface hardware to connect them to the SPHERES testbeds on ISS, and will support the necessary ISS safety review meetings to get flight approval by the end of Phase II. Successful flight demonstration in a Phase II-E or II-X option would raise the system TRL to 8, at which point it could be smoothly integrated into operational AFFs such as the ones NASA STMD is currently developing.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The main near-term application for LISA manipulators is to infuse them into the design of the AFF that STMD is developing under the Human Exploration Telerobotics 2 (HET-2) project. STMD is developing these AFFs as an operational robotics system for performing menial tasks that are currently performed by ISS crew, such as inventory and environmental monitoring. LISA manipulators can provide many benefits to an operational AFF, by providing not only perching/anchoring and pulling/prodding, but also more complex manipulation tasks such as opening storage lockers, fetching items, and emplacing remote sensors, without the need for crew support. In addition to the ISS application, LISA-equipped AFFs may also be useful for crew-tended deep space facilities, enabling routine maintenance, repairs, and crew-preparations to be performed robotically while no crew is present. Lastly, a vacuum/space-compatible derivative of the LISA manipulators may be useful for external assistive free-flyers supporting and in some cases replacing EVAs for repairs, maintenance, and inspection outside NASA vehicles and facilities.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Three potential non-NASA applications for LISA manipulators are: (1) Commercial equivalents of the NASA-developed AFF, for crew assistance on future commercial space facilities, (2) Commercially-operated versions of the AFFs for providing commercial janatorial, maintenance, and support services onboard existing and future NASA facilities, and (3) for fixed-mounted arms for manipulation of experiments in enclosed facilities such as the ISS Microgravity Science Glovebox.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Actuators & Motors
  • Autonomous Control (see also Control & Monitoring)
  • Composites
  • Deployment Inventory Management/Warehousing Machines/Mechanical Subsystems
  • Prototyping
  • Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)
  • Simulation & Modeling Teleoperation

  • Dennis

    For those that want to know more about this project, over at the NSF forums Jonathan Goff is an active participant in the topic (hes actually topic starter as well :P) about Altius Space Machines. He frequently answers questions from the other residents as well.

  • therealdmt

    I’m cool with this if they paint some vaguely face-like lines on them, give them nicknames, and have them randomly emit a series of bleeps as they go about their duties.

    Also, their behavior should exhibit a slight, barely detectable bias in movement towards those crew members who exhibit signs of fear or loathing towards them.


    They should name them B.O.B, V.I.N.CENT or Huey, Dewey and Louie.

  • therealdmt

    That’s so funny — the first thing that popped into my mind when I read this article was actually V.I.N.C.E.N.T. From ‘The Black Hole’ (though I didn’t recall the robot’s name until reading your post). Man, that’s kind of an obscure one, eh?


    I thought of the same movie too. Had to look up the names.

    Huey, Dewey and Louie
    are “drones” from Silent Running…