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Interview with Professor Yang Gao, STAR LAB

Q: What are the main applications of robotics and AI in the space sector?

AI robotics are crucial to future space exploration and exploitation, to enable applications like satellite servicing, on-orbit assembly and manufacturing, clean space (debris removal), planetary sample return, in-situ resource utilisation, as well as supporting human spaceflight, outpost and permanent habitation on the Moon, Mars and beyond.

Q: Can you tell me a bit about the work being done by Surrey Space Centre?

Surrey Space Centre (SSC) at University of Surrey has an over 40-year heritage of space research and education. SSC successfully developed and operated the World’s first series of university-led micro and nano satellites in the 1970-1990’s, and continued to do pioneering research ranging from astrodynamics, space propulsion and radiation to spacecraft autonomy, AI and robotics. SSC is also the birthplace of SSTL, a world leading small spacecraft manufacturer since the 1980’s and a subsidiary of Airbus since 2008.

Q: What are you currently focussing on in your own work?

I am heading the Space Technology for Autonomous and Robotic systems Laboratory (STAR LAB) established back in 2007 within SSC. Our vision is to build on Surrey’s “small-sat engineering” philosophy and extend it to advance autonomous systems and robotics for space. Our research expertise covers robotic sensing and perception, navigation, autonomy and biomimetic mechanisms applicable for space and other extreme environments alike. Our team has been involved in various real-world space mission design and development such as ESA’s ExoMars, Proba3 and VMMO, UK’s MoonLITE and Moonraker, and China’s Chang’E3, etc. We are also actively involved in technology spin-in and -out with non-space sectors including oil & gas, nuclear and agriculture.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in space robotics right now, and how are researchers addressing them?

In the near-medium term, space roboticists face a number of key challenges imposed by space environments and spacecraft design constraints, such as low-computation, high-accuracy 3D mapping & perception; energy-optimised locomotion mechanisms & control; resource-aware computation and data assimilation for parameter tuning; and hardware/software reconfiguration & self-verification in real time. Addressing these challenges will help achieve long-lived, robust mobility & autonomy for future-generation spacecraft in the long term.

Q: What has the current crisis highlighted as the greatest areas of need from robotics and AI in the future?

The main motivation to employ AI robotics for space is to minimise risks to humans who work directly within the extreme environments and / or to help assist or improve human productivity in those hazardous conditions. Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic has further demonstrated the advantages and benefits of embedding more AI robotics in our industry sectors and wider society on Earth. The future of human pursuits in space or on Earth are both envisioned to require ecosystems where human and robots will co-exist and co-develop.