Canadarm2 and Dextre Unlock New Level of Autonomy

Canadarm2 and Dextre. (Credit: NASA)

LONGUEIUL, Que. (CSA PR) — Having recently celebrated 20 years on the International Space Station (ISS), Canada’s iconic robotic arm is getting another boost in autonomy.

Originally designed to be controlled by astronauts in space, Canadarm2 was quickly adapted for ground control in its early years. A joint CSA-NASA team of robotics flight controllers now carefully plan and execute most manoeuvres of Canada’s space robots from Houston and Saint-Hubert, Quebec.

Last week, Dextre and Canadarm2 teamed up to test out a new capability made possible by a recent expansion to autonomy software known as MAC, or the Mobile Servicing System Application Computer.

Dextre used the cameras in its Latching End Effector to take snapshots of grapple fixtures – the Station’s robotics anchor points – and the pair were autonomously aligned from various distances. These apparently simple operations usually require ground controllers to perform the alignment.

A day later, Canadarm2 repeated the target practice session without Dextre, using images captured by its cameras to analyze and then close the gap between its Latching End Effector and a Station grapple point. The 17-metre-long robotic arm successfully identified its target, calculated the required movements, and executed them.

This latest phase of autonomous operations succeeded thanks to CSA and MDA engineers who have expanded MAC software to include this “look and move” capability. A previous phase allowed Canadarm2 and Dextre to perform their first-ever autonomous operations on the exterior of the orbiting lab. This latest vision testing activity provided important data that will help engineers fine-tune the system and enable increasingly autonomous robotics operations on the Station in the future.

Adding autonomy to Canada’s ISS robots helps lay the groundwork for Canadarm3, Canada’s contribution to the Lunar Gateway. The next-generation robotics system, powered by advances in artificial intelligence, will perform many of its tasks around the Moon autonomously.