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New walking robot may be the future of space construction

Researchers have designed a new walking robot that can potentially assemble and maintain large construction projects in space and eliminate dangerous Earth tasks for fellow humans.

(CN) — Certain tasks are necessary but dangerous, such as fixing as a wind turbine, washing a skyscraper window or even constructing the skyscraper itself. Yet the field of robotics is moving in the direction of developing technology that can alleviate dangerous jobs for humans both on Earth and in outer space.

According to a new study from Frontiers in Robotics and AI, researchers have designed a new type of robot to revolutionize large construction projects in space: The E-Walker.

“The research is about the future of space which would involve a lot of in-orbit activities,” lead researcher Manu Nair, a doctoral candidate at the University of Lincoln in England, said. Such activities range from assembly missions to manufacturing, which are quite difficult and dangerous for astronauts to do in the extreme conditions of space.

But while several types of advanced robots already exist, Nair’s research suggests the E-Walker is unique. Instead of handling limited tasks, the robot has the potential to walk, learn different modules and assemble complex equipment with seven degrees of motion. Additionally, the robot has a larger payload capacity, making it an ideal candidate for assembling large-scale projects in-orbit.

Nair’s team is currently focusing on having the robot assemble a 25-meter large aperture telescope — larger than NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope — so that researchers can use it for both for astronomical purposes and to observe Earth to detect seismic vibrations, weather systems or even climate change. But before Nair’s team can test the E-Walker’s functionality in space, they still need to test its design at the University of Lincoln.

Researchers conducted successful feasibility tests for in-space assembly of the 25-meter telescope and compared its simulated functionality with existing Canadarm2 and the European Robotic Arm on the International Space Station. At present, Nair said the team is building a scaled-down prototype with in-built features to perform servicing and assembly tasks on Earth.

“Not a big scale mission like the space mission side of things,” Nair said. “But it can maybe perform servicing missions on a wind turbine where we cannot imagine a person kind of climbing up the wind turbine to fix a motor or things like that.”

Nair also noted that while the prototype is in the funding stages, it already has potential partners in various industries. The atomic industry and others find the prototype useful for projects that conventional robotic manipulators cannot do since they lack mobility and dexterity. Nair expects to finish the prototype in a few months.

Yet despite the recent advancements in robotics and autonomous systems solutions, Nair doesn’t believe robots can entirely replace humans. “There's always a conflict with a robot replacing a human,” Nair said. Instead, he believes robots like the E-Walker meet the challenge for situations that are too risky for humans.

“We could look at window cleaning, for example, of high tall skyscrapers where humans are connected with a rope that they're only support,” Nair said. “So, we are not trying to replace humans over here. We are just trying to provide an aid where it's riskier for a human to do so.”

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