Robotics for in-space manufacturing

SwRI built an air-bearing table to mimic microgravity to evaluate robotic movement models, such as this simulation of a robotic arm following a predefined trajectory.
Credit: Southwest Research Institute

Institute builds new Space Robotics Center for in-space servicing, assembly, manufacturing R&D.

Southwest Research Institute has invested in new space robotics capabilities to help the space industry pave the way for in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing (ISAM) capabilities. SwRI’s Intelligent Systems Division will demonstrate new ISAM-focused research at the 38th Space Symposium, April 8-11, in Colorado Springs. Visit SwRI at Booth #237.

“SwRI is developing solutions to leverage Earth-based industrial robotics with advanced automation and simulation so we can help clients develop new capabilities for the complex conditions of space,” said Meera Towler, an SwRI engineer who leads SwRI’s Space Robotics initiative.

The Space Symposium brings together leaders from around the world to discuss and plan for the future of space. Through ISAM, NASA and others envision a space industry with agile vehicles that will deploy parts and materials into space for robotic manufacturing and assembly. An important enabling step for ISAM includes developing Earth- and lunar-based test beds and even research facilities on the surface of the Moon.

SwRI’s space robotics research focuses on high-fidelity simulation, advanced perception, robotic manipulation in space and extraterrestrial automated driving. SwRI’s new Space Robotics Center supports this research with an air-bearing table, motion capture system, a seven degree-of-freedom robot arm, test fixtures and more.

Engineers developed software and modeling tools to help robots plan motion for complex, on-orbit conditions. SwRI is also developing efficient low-power vision for lunar rovers or small aerial systems.

“We are excited to share these R&D projects with the space community to help bridge the gap between today’s power-hungry, Earth-based industrial robots and the near-future ISAM ecosystem where advanced automation will help build the next generation of space infrastructure,” said Dr. Steve Dellenback, vice president of SwRI’s Intelligent Systems Division.


  • Space-Based Robot Motion Planning — SwRI used a physics-based simulation tool to develop a robotics simulation package to address challenges associated with object identification, trajectory tracking and dynamic motion planning in space. SwRI will evaluate the simulation models using a robot arm on an air-bearing table in the Space Robotics Center.


  • Localization for Lunar Rovers — SwRI investigated deploying its Ranger localization system on lunar rovers. Ranger’s ground-facing cameras and automation software successfully guided a rover across simulated regolith.


  • Camera Vision for Cave Exploration — SwRI used caves as testbeds to evaluate unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for future space applications. New algorithms successfully used stereo cameras to autonomously guide a small UAS.


  • Stereovision vs Lidar for Off-Road Autonomy — SwRI used a recurrent neural network (RNN) algorithm to estimate vehicle motion from a sequence of camera images, inertial measurements and wheel data for off-road navigation. As an alternative to lidar, the stereovision solution could provide simultaneous localization and mapping for extraterrestrial navigation.


  • FPGA Computing for Faster Object DetectionSwRI used a space-ready field programmable gate array (FPGA) to accelerate object detection. The solution leveraged an open-source algorithm deployed on a FPGA, which outperformed a commercially available solution and traditional space computers.


  • RISC-V/ARM for Faster Space Computing — SwRI is evaluating the next generation of fast, reliable microprocessors for embedded spaceflight systems. Some space-ready FPGAs outperformed conventional processors, and an Advanced RISC Machines (ARM) processor outperformed a legacy space processor, using a fraction of the energy.


SwRI’s Intelligent Systems Division is a leader in development of software, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, data analytics and systems engineering solutions.

To watch a video about this research, visit:

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Media Contact

Robert Crowe
Southwest Research Institute
Office: 210.522.4630

Media Contact

Robert Crowe
Southwest Research Institute

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