If I tell you that machines can now give birth to baby cows; you won’t be very surprised. Well, it’s not true yet but it’s not far though. At present, computers and machines have been a source of mind-bending innovations.
They continue to surprise us with their huge range of utilities. But, the most exotic and extravagant one is the area of space exploration and research.
In the following read, you’ll be introduced to what these autonomous robots are, how they rule the space research sphere, and especially how they are “warriors of the stars.”
1. What are Autonomous Robots?
First things first, let’s get an idea about what we are referring to when we state “autonomous robots”. Are they some self-driven computing programs or some transformer-level machines? Well, technically yes they are but with a pinch of practicality added to them.
Autonomous robots are robots that can perform tasks and make decisions without direct human intervention in real-time. More like machines with intelligent brains. Talking specifically space-oriented robots, are equipped with onboard sensors, processing units, and algorithms that allow them to perceive their environment.
In addition, they can also interpret data and make decisions based on pre-programmed instructions or learned behaviours. The most stand-out ability of these autonomous robots is their independent functioning without the need for constant human guidance or even remote control during their operations.
Yes, you heard me right! We are not talking about the remotely controlled robots or the “teleoperated robots” which require human input to carry out tasks. There lies a thin line difference between the two.
Given below are some of the key distinctions between the two magical machines.
1.1 Decision-Making Capability
Unlike joystick-run robots, autonomous robots possess the ability to make decisions based on their onboard algorithms and fed data.
You can visualize this in a way that once these mini-bots are sent to space they are on their own; working without human aid and sending us the required data. They need not be flown or given commands continuously like the conventional ones.
1.2 Real-Time Independence
As it is quite evident, these autonomous robots can function on their own without back-to-back human input. Whereas the good old robotic spacecraft need a constant connection to a human operator.
Another perk that autonomous robots provide is that they can adapt to unforeseen situations and adjust their actions accordingly. They get this superpower based on their programming or learning from their environment.
On the other hand, remotely operated robots are limited by the operator’s instructions and may struggle to handle unexpected out-of-the-blue scenarios.
1.4 Communication Requirements
These self-driven robots require less communication bandwidth and latency because they process information locally.
On the contrary, remotely controlled bots can operate only when provided with a steady and reliable communication link between the operator and the system. Why not do it then? Because laying down such a vast connection link is not only hazardous but also heavy on the pockets.
Autonomous robots can operate much more reliably even in situations where communication with the base station is disrupted or compromised.
This is of great help to the space-mission operators as it alleviates the need for continuous monitoring and command prompting.
In addition, one of the most problematic issues with the traditional robots is their heavy reliance on constant communication and any interruption in the link may lead to loss of control.
2. How Have Autonomous Robots Been Utilized to Date?
The amount of help that we have received from our space bots is highly ‘underrated’. These autonomous robots have not only played a crucial role in various space exploration and research missions but have been of great help in enhancing our understanding of the cosmos.
Today, the closest we can get to the unknown is through these scientific marvels. There is no doubt that these robots have the potential to shape our future.
2.1 Mars Exploration Rovers:
NASA’s Mars rovers have been the talk of the town since time immemorial. They are counted in some of the most famous examples of self-driven space vehicles. They were initially designed to operate independently on the Martian surface but have now been improvised for other purposes as well.
These Mars bros can navigate around obstacles, analyze rocks and soils and transmit data back to Earth. These rovers can be credited with expanding our knowledge of Mar’s geology, history, and potential habitability.
2.2 Lunar Exploration Rovers:
Much similar to the Mars rovers, these lunar rovers were designed to explore the lunar surface. China’s change missions deployed the rovers namely Yutu and Yutu-2.
Why were they sent to the moon? To analyze soil samples, conduct experiments autonomously even during lunar nights when Earth’s communication was almost null.
2.3 Hayabusa2’s MINERVA-II Rovers:
If you thought that our robots were confined to only the moon and the planets; you’re highly mistaken.
The Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2 carried two small rovers named MINERVA-II1 and MINERVA-II2 to the asteroid Ryugu.These rovers were designed to explore and study the asteroid’s surface autonomously.
2.4 ESA’s ExoMars Rover:
The European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars rover was designed to search for signs of past or present life on Mars.
And the spacecraft was named ‘Rosalind Franklin to honour the famous British chemist. It has autonomous capabilities to navigate and conduct scientific investigations without constant human intervention.
2.5 JAXA’s Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) Rover:
Japan’s JAXA is planning to send a rover to explore the Martian moons- Phobos and Deimos. As part of their mission, the rover will conduct autonomous exploration on the moon’s surface.
2.6 Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM):
The well-known Asteroid Redirect Mission was a NASA project focused on capturing an asteroid and placing it into orbit around the moon.
Its goals included testing planetary defense techniques and advancing knowledge for future space endeavours. Nonetheless, the mission was terminated before execution. The reasons were kept a secret but budget issues were the most popular guess.
2.7 Space Debris Cleanup:
Autonomous robots have been proposed for space debris cleanup missions where they would autonomously locate and capture debris to reduce the risks of collision with active satellites.
You would be surprised to know that there are around 34000 pieces of space junk that could prove disastrous if they were to hit our dear Earth.
3. Need for Research
More than 99.9% of the people reading this, would be wondering why are we putting so much effort into this particular field. How are we to benefit from space exploration?
What are the advantages of using these autonomous robots over human-led missions? And most importantly, are these advantages even fruitful?
So here are the main pros of using these marvels.
The very first advantage of using autonomous robots is that they can eliminate the need for continuous human presence.
In addition, they also reduce the mission costs significantly. As we are well aware, sending humans to space involves substantial expenses in both physical as well as monetary terms.
Life support systems, training, and safety measures are all quite heavy on the budget. But, on the other hand, our dear robots, once deployed, can operate for extended periods without additional human resources.
3.2 Risk Reduction
As in the news these days, extreme places such as the deep sea and outer space have been a no-no for even the enthusiasts. What would be better if some machine with a brain of its own is sent instead of a human?
Moreover, doing so alleviates the risk posed by long travel times, harsh environments, and radiation exposure. Autonomies are the present best answer to safer exploration of dangerous celestial bodies or regions.
3.3 Longer Duration Missions
As you might have guessed by now, autonomous robots are not limited by the constraints of human physiology. They don’t need water, food, or rest to work or stay alive. They can endure longer missions and conduct expeditions without interruption without popping SCPs.
3.4 Real-Time Decision Making
These autonomies are designed with advanced AI. What does that mean? They can process data in real-time and make decisions independently. How does that help? It reduces the communication delays between Earth and distant spacecraft.
Moreover, this capability allows for quicker responses to unexpected and unfed situations that might occur during the expedition.
3.5 Precision and Consistency
Though it is still a question of great debate, computers are better than us humans, especially at calculative and time-consuming tasks like speculative progression.
We would also agree with the fact that these robots can execute tasks with high precision and consistency. Thus, minimizing errors during data collection and experiments.
3.6 Exploring Inaccessible Areas
What do we use a vacuum cleaner for? To clean the dirt off our floors which would take hours for us to find and sweep.
Similarly, we use these robots to venture into hazardous and challenging areas of space. Areas which if left unresearched, would be a great loss and if manually visited; prove to be a disaster.
3.7 Increased Productivity
Now, this would be just a conclusion about all of the above pros that we discussed. So far, we realized the immense help that we receive from these robots.
Be it in terms of exploration of the unknown or experimenting with the already known; autonomous robots are seen everywhere.
What we take away from the discussion is that deploying multiple bots in space exploration missions can increase productivity and efficiency manifold times.
3.8 Enhanced Data Collection
Unlike us humans, these machines can be equipped with various sensors and can collect much more data than humans can. This data can then be analyzed and transmitted back to Earth for further study.
As technology advances, it becomes easier and easier to replicate and deploy autonomous and semi-autonomous robots in multiple missions.
All thanks to our science community that is working day and night to make major future goals of ours true. This scalability allows for a broader range of space exploration projects and research endeavours.
4. Limitations of the Plan
4.1 Communication Delay:
As it is obvious, space missions involve vast distances. We deal with lightyears and not mere kilometres. All this leads to significant communication delays that can hinder real-time control and decision-making.
As discussed above, this situation worsens in the case of remotely operated systems. The prospected solution is the development of more advanced onboard decision-making capabilities.
4.2 Limited Autonomy:
Despite advances in AI and robotics, we still lag in terms of creating autonomy in the literal sense. The current robots that we are talking about may and often do face a struggle in handling complex and dynamic environments.
As these machines are built in stimulated and artificial stations, they may fail to perform as promised in the actual field.
4.3 Energy Constraint:
Energy and power have been nemesis since time immemorial. Any scientific innovation that you can think of would either be for generating power or would be generated by using power. Autonomous robots are no exception.
They rely heavily on power sources such as solar panels and batteries. In space, sunlight might vary from planet to planet and would cause problems in the machine’s charging.
To top it off, managing power consumption and ensuring sufficient energy for prolonged missions which can extend up to 2-3 years is a critical challenge.
4.4 Hardware Reliability:
The simple hardware that we purchase for our homes that are kept protected in our houses with no apparent meteorites hitting it; even if they go wrong with no prior signals.
What is the probability of sophisticated spacecraft roaming in space with no man onboard to go off? Quite high, isn’t it?
Space environments subject robots to extreme temperatures, radiation, and microgravity which can affect the reliability and lifespan of their hardware components.
4.5 Navigation and Mobility:
Satellites and autonomous robots do not have GPS tracking systems like we do. They don’t have an Alexa to tell them when the next right turn is.
Moreover, navigating and traversing varied terrains in space can be challenging for autonomous robots. Uneven surfaces, steep slopes, or obstacles may hinder their movement and exploration capabilities.
4.6 Data Analysis and Interpretation:
The sole aim of space robots is data transmission. Autonomous robots generate vast amounts of data during missions. It’s all good till here.
The problem arises when the processing, analyzing, and interpretation of the data is needed. The solution to this issue is coming up with newer and more modern technologies for data handling.
4.7 Environmental Sensing:
Autonomous robots require accurate environmental sensing capabilities to assess their surroundings and make informed decisions.
Sensors may degrade over time owing to the extreme conditions it is constantly made to operate in. This drastically affects the quality of data collected.
4.8 Lack of Human Intuition:
What would you do if you saw an asteroid approaching you? Protect yourself. But a computer-operated spaceship wouldn’t do so. If not fed into its systems, it would bang right into the asteroid thereby destructing itself.
In addition, these robots struggle to interpret unexpected situations and lack the human intuition to assess certain scientific phenomena or anomalies. Human intervention or complex AI algorithms may be needed to overcome these limitations.
4.9 Repairs and Maintenance:
Unlike human missions where astronauts can perform repairs and reboots; autonomous robots must be designed to handle potential malfunctions or damage autonomously.
4.10 Ethical Considerations:
Before any scientific act is accepted worldwide; it is subjected to heavy questioning. Mainly, the ethics and social issues that are to be addressed.
In addition, to the potential impact on extraterrestrial environments, we are also concerned about the possibility of unintended consequences that these bots may have.
5. Future that AI Beholds
If there is one thing that is certain about our autonomies – It is their promising future. We see a new horizon in the coming years where these smart robots will be ruling space as they do in the terrestrial field.
5.1 Interplanetary Missions:
Interplanetary travel is by far the most exciting and enthralling prospect of all. Moreover, autonomous robots will be the checkmates in exploring various planets, moons, and asteroids in our solar system.
And if science develops, most probably even the neighbouring galaxies. These missions will help eliminate our most primal constraints and gain insights into planetary geology, history, and habitability.
5.2 Extending Human Reach:
Autonomous robots presently do and will continue to complement human space missions. This includes a range of operations from conducting preliminary exploration to preparing habitats before astronauts arrive. Moreover, they can also do tasks that are too risky for a human to perform.
5.3 Advanced Scientific Research:
With AI-driven onboard analysis, autonomous robots can conduct sophisticated scientific research in real-time.
Moreover, they will contribute to studies of exoplanets, cosmic phenomena, and astrobiology. All in all, we have a complete ‘understanding of the universe’ package.
5.4 Sample Return Missions:
As many science enthusiasts can foresee, autonomies will be critical in future sample return missions. What is a sample return mission, you might wonder?
These are specially designed operations led to collecting, packaging, and safely returning to Earth for detailed analysis.
5.5 Astrobiology and Search for Life:
However, there is no end to what we can make a computer do. In the same line of argument comes the extraterrestrial life search. Autonomous robots will be a boon in our search for signs of present or even past life on other planets or their moons.
5.6 In-Situ Resource Utilization(Isru):
Ever wondered how well space robots can perform in identifying and extracting resources on other celestials? Substances such as water, minerals, and gases might seem very normal to us Earth people; but, these are worth more than diamond and sapphire to the researchers.
Finding such components is a sign of hope for further human missions and reducing the reliance on Earth for supplies.
5.7 Augmented Reality (AR) And Virtual Reality (VR):
As mentioned earlier, there is no bound on what you use autonomous robots for. Future robots could be controlled and monitored through AR and VR interfaces. Why? To provide a more immersive and intuitive experience for operators.
Autonomous robots have proven to be invaluable assets in space exploration and research, and their prowess in pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and understanding of the cosmos.
Moreover, from the groundbreaking mission of Mars rovers, such as Spirit. Opportunity, Curiosity, and Perseverance, to the historic lunar exploration by China’s Yutu and Yutu-2, these autonomous robots have revolutionized our approach to exploring celestial bodies.
The successful sample return mission of Hayabusa and Hayabusa-2, as well as the extraordinary feats of InSight and Philae, demonstrate the precision and adaptability of these robots in carrying out complex tasks on distant objects.
Moreover, the ambitious plans for ESA’s ExoMars rover, Rosalind Franklin, and the quest to uncover the secrets of the cosmos.
Through AI-driven technology, autonomous robots have overcome challenges posed by communication delays, limited human presence, and harsh space environments.
Moreover, they have brought about significant cost efficiencies, mitigated risk to human life, and extended the duration of space missions, thereby broadening the scope and scale of exploration.