Automation and Robotics Laboratory
In one sense all unmanned missions can be considered 'robotic' spacecraft, but at ESA the term has a more specific meaning. Robot systems are those that have mobility and the ability to manipulate objects, plus the flexibility to perform these tasks autonomously or by remote control.
On Earth the jobs robots get assigned are typically one of the three 'D's – too dull, difficult or dangerous for humans. Robots manufacture cars, weld oil pipes on the seabed or dismantle nuclear facilities. In space robots can support or replace people in a similar manner, because it is hard to get astronauts to space and even harder to keep them alive there.
But it is more difficult to design robots for space than their earthbound equivalents. They must operate reliably for years without repair, weigh as little as possible to reduce launch costs, have minimal power requirements, withstand violent launch stresses and endure extreme space conditions. Robots in space may also require a high level of autonomy - the signal-delay inherent in operating far from Earth renders direct remote control impractical.
ESA's Robotics and Automation Laboratory supports space robotics projects throughout their life cycle. Its work begins with the initial investigations and prototyping of new concepts, going on to provide assistance with development problems during implementation, then validating that completed hardware is able to meet the needs of its mission.
Last update: 17 September 2009