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Robotic surgery for run-down satellites

JOHNS HOPKINS (US) — A technology developed for delicate abdominal surgeries someday may be used to repair satellites in space, say researchers.

Engineers, already expert in medical robotics, have turned their attention skyward to help NASA develop ways to fix valuable satellites that are breaking down or running out of fuel.

Sending a human repair crew into space is costly, dangerous, and might not even be possible for satellites in distant orbit. But sending robots to the rescue and giving them a little long-distance human help is a viable alternative, researchers say.

From a robotics lab in Baltimore, graduate students Tian Xia (left) and Jonathan Bohren used a da Vinci medical console, behind Bohren, to control an industrial robot at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center 30 miles away. (Credit: Will Kirk/JHU)

As a demonstration, two graduate students at Johns Hopkins University‘s Homewood campus in Baltimore recently used a modified da Vinci control console to manipulate an industrial robot at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, about 30 miles away.

The same type of console is used to conduct robotic surgery on cancer and cardiac patients. It includes a 3D eyepiece that allowed the operator in Baltimore to guide the robot at Goddard. It also provided haptic, or “touch,” feedback to the operator.

The goal, the engineers say, is to adapt some robotic operating room strategies to help NASA to perform long-distance “surgery” on ailing satellites.

“We’re using the expertise we’ve developed in medical robotics technology and applying it to some of the remote-controlled tasks that NASA wants space robots to perform in repairing and refueling satellites,” says Louis Whitcomb, professor of mechanical engineering.

West Virginia University, which has received a NASA grant for the research, picked Johns Hopkins engineers as partners because of their expertise in medical robotics.

One task the team has worked on is the use of a remote-controlled robot to carefully cut the plastic tape that holds a satellite’s thermal insulation blanket in place. The tape must be cut and the blanket pulled back in order to expose the satellite’s refueling port.

A long-distance test of this procedure, in which an operator at Johns Hopkins will guide a robot through a tape-cutting procedure in West Virginia, is slated to take place soon.

The task would be much more challenging when the target satellite is in orbit around the moon, for example. Because of the distance, there will be a significant delay between the time the operator signals the robot to move and the time the instructions are received and carried out. The research team is working on technology to help compensate for this delay.

The project has provided an exciting hands-on research opportunity for Jonathan Bohren, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering, and Tian Xia, a computer science doctoral student. In the Goddard demonstration, Bohren and Xia controlled the robot from a workstation at Johns Hopkins.

“The long-range goal is to be able to manipulate a space robot like this from any location, to refuel satellites, for instance,” Bohren says. “A lot of satellites have the potential to have their lives extended if we can do that.”

Some satellites cost millions or even billions of dollars to build and launch. If a cost-effective robotic rescue is possible, Xia says, NASA would not have to abandon satellites that are potentially still useful.

“It would be like driving a fancy car and then ditching it after it runs out of fuel,” Xia says.

The project’s principal investigator at Johns Hopkins is Peter Kazanzides, an associate research professor in computer science in the university’s Whiting School of Engineering.

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