Tokyo space startup Gitai Japan successfully conducted a technology demonstration of its autonomous robotic arm inside the International Space Station last week, a key milestone as the company prepares to provide robotics as a service in space.
The S1 robotic arm performed two tasks: operating cables and switches, and assembling structures and panels. These tasks – common crew activities – can be used in a general-purpose way for a range of in-space activities. The successful demo raised what NASA calls the “technology readiness level” of the Gitai robot to TRL 7. There are 9 TRLs in total, and hitting all of them will be critical for Gitai commercializing its robots.
The demonstration was performed inside space company Nanoracks’ Bishop Airlock, the world’s first (and only) commercial airlock to be attached to the exterior of the station. Nanoracks – which announced plans last week to launch a fully private commercial space station with Voyage Space and Lockheed Martin – also furnished on-orbit operations, data downlink and the launch opportunity.
Gitai’s robotic arm was sent to orbit aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule, part of the launch company’s 23rd Commercial Resupply Services Mission at the end of August. The Japanese startup is developing robots for a range of general purposes in space, including on-orbit servicing of spacecraft, construction, or manufacturing tasks. The next step for the company is to test the Gitai robot outside the ISS.
“The success of this investigation proves that the GITAI robot can be a solution for space agencies and commercial space companies looking for versatile, dexterous, relatively safe (less exposure to life threatening risks for humans), and inexpensive labor force,” NASA said in a tech demo update. “Providing this option furthers the goals of commercialization of space.”
Gitai doesn’t want to just build robotic arms, however. The company’s long-term vision sees robots as key tools for building space colonies, on the surface of the moon or even Mars. This robotic workforce could be the answer to accelerating human presence in off-world environments. Earlier this year, the startup closed a $17.1 million Series B funding round, to hire and accelerate the development of a separate satellite servicing tech demo set to take place in 2023.
Watch footage from last week’s demonstration here: