Tethers Unlimited to Develop Collaborative Robotics Platform with NASA Funding

Tethers Unlimited (TUI) will develop a collaborative robotics platform for use aboard the International Space Station with the assistance of NASA funding.

The space agency has selected the company’s AstroPorter proposal for funding under its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I program. The contract is worth up to $125,000 over 13 months.

‘TUI will develop an AstroPorter payload for Astrobee to perform collaborative robotics tasks with TUI’s MANTIS – an EXPRESS Rack payload with a robotic arm for telerobotic operation of experiments on the ISS,” the proposal summary states. “AstroPorter will interface with Astrobee through the dedicated payload bay and function as a platform for transporting equipment and other stowed material around the ISS.”

Astrobee P4 (Credit: NASA)

The project will develop systems that will reduce the amount of astronaut time required for basic maintenance tasks, the company said. it also brings self-maintenance of human space habitats closer to reality.

“In the Phase 1 effort, the TRL of AstroPorter will be matured to TRL-5, in preparation for preliminary demonstrations on the ISS in Phase I,” the summary stated.

The proposal summary follows.

Proposal Title:
AstroPorter

Subtopic Title:
Payload Technologies for Free-Flying Robots

Small Business Concern
Tethers Unlimited, Inc.
Bothell , WA

Principal Investigator
Dr. Nathan Britton

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 2
End: 5

Technical Abstract

Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI) proposes to develop a collaborative robotics platform, AstroPorter, for multi-agent coordinated tasks on the International Space Station (ISS). TUI will develop an AstroPorter payload for Astrobee to perform collaborative robotics tasks with TUI’s MANTIS – an EXPRESS Rack payload with a robotic arm for telerobotic operation of experiments on the ISS. AstroPorter will interface with Astrobee through the dedicated payload bay and function as a platform for transporting equipment and other stowed material around the ISS.

Each AstroPorter will be equipped with TUI’s high precision 3DOF end-effector placement gimbal, COBRA-Bee, and support the optional installation of platforms between two AstroPorters by crew. This platform will be used to place cumbersome equipment or stowed materials for transport. The high-degree of mobility provided by Astrobee places it in an excellent position to perform cataloging and fetching tasks within a collaborative robotic environment with MANTIS serving to support fixed-base manipulation tasks.

Developing the payload and software infrastructure that allows Astrobee and MANTIS to share subtasks using collaborative control will extend the capability of robotic systems aboard the ISS, reduce astronaut burden for basic caretaking tasks, and bring self-maintenance of in-space habitats closer to reality. In the Phase 1 effort, the TRL of AstroPorter will be matured to TRL-5, in preparation for preliminary demonstrations on the ISS in Phase II.

Potential NASA Applications

AstroPorter is a crosscutting technology which directly addresses three of the NASA 2015 Technology Roadmap Areas: 4.2.7 Collaborative Mobility, 4.3.5 Collaborative Manipulation, and 4.5.4 Multi-Agent Coordination. The development of AstroPorter and collaborative robotic demonstrations of Astrobee and MANTIS for habitat caretaking on the ISS will benefit not only ISS, but future missions and initiatives like NASA’s Deep Space Gateway.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

TUI views the development of the proposed collaborative robotics technology and demonstrations as a milestone on our roadmap to implementing complex, distributed space systems and in-space assembly under the general In-Space Manufacturing initiative. This technology will be critical for the assembly of TUI’s Constructable Platform – a modular self-assembling persistent structure, developed in partnership with DARPA to provide power and communication services for payload hosting.