The Driverless Decade: Part IV - Autonomous Spacecraft

February 3, 2020
Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Previously, in our 4-part series on the autonomous mobility revolution currently transforming life as we know it, we looked at how driverless technology will replace humans in the captain’s chairs of land, air, and sea vehicles. In this, the final chapter of the Driverless Decade, we’re exploring space, the final frontier, and revealing how self-driving technology will allow our species to go where no one has gone before. 

A.I. Is the Captain Now

NASA and Boeing are collaborating on the CST-100 Starliner space capsule to shuttle astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew program. The spacecraft is equipped with an autonomous flight control system that can pilot the ship. With advanced technology at the helm, crews won't need as much time to prepare for spaceflights. Unfortunately, an issue with the timing system caused a malfunction in the autonomous controls during a test launch last December, so there’s still some kinks to be ironed out. As a Pyrrhic victory, Starliner became the first space capsule to ever return to American soil, rather than landing in the ocean as has been tradition. 

And then we have Boeing's Commercial Crew rival SpaceX and its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which not only features self-navigating capabilities, but already demonstrated that it works flawlessly in action. Last March, Crew Dragon rendezvoused with the International Space Station to become the first American spacecraft to autonomously dock with the orbiting laboratory. And it's worth mentioning that SpaceX employs an autonomous drone ship to catch and retrieve returning rocket boosters. It's easy to imagine that one day self-navigating A.I. will control nearly every part of SpaceX's spacegoing operations.

Made for Mars

NASA has Mars on the mind and is planning on making a crewed voyage to our planetary neighbor sometime in the 2030s (budget permitting). The agency has other near-term plans which includes sending up another rover this summer. Like the Curiosity rover that came before it, the latest vehicle will be guided remotely using signals bounced off satellites at the speed of light which, depending on conditions, can take anywhere between 3 and 22 minutes to transmit back and forth. So what happens if the vehicle is approaching a steep cliff only two minutes away? Well, its sayonara Mars rover, we barely knew you as the delay would prove too great to save the little guy in time.

But what if the rover could make its own navigational decisions using autonomous technology? That’s the thinking behind the European Union's Horizon 2020 initiative which is testing autonomous spacecraft designed to retrieve Martian samples left behind by NASA’s 2020 rover. Project collaborators include European space agencies and Airbus. The rovers recently concluded a field test in the Sahara Desert to some success as the spacecraft managed to operate on their own while in autonomous mode. 

Similarly, at Stanford University, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics, Marco Pavone, who worked in robotics at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is still collaborating with his former employer in developing space robots that have the ability to adapt to unknown and changing environments. One of the projects taking place in his Palo Alto lab involves a free roaming robot that can traverse uneven, rugged and low-gravity terrains by hopping instead of driving on wheels. It’s hoped that the research performed by Pavone and others at Stanford will be transferable to improving Earthbound self-driving cars. 

If humans are ever going to kick it on Mars then an infrastructure will need to be in place before our arrival to make the environment hospitable enough to support human life. While terraforming the planet is but a fantasy, sending up autonomous machines that can roam the terrain, mine necessary resources, and build habitats all on their own is an idea that is gaining traction. Building in situ, rather than having crew members transport materials and commencing construction when they arrive, is a concept in development at Boston-based AI SpaceFactory. The startup won NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge for its driverless construction robots and manufacturing technology that operates on the principles of autonomy to prefab habitats on Mars in advance of human crews. 

Journey to Didymos and Didymoon

The ESA’s next asteroid mission, Hera, is on deck for 2023, and the orbital spacecraft will rely on an autonomous navigation system to fly close to the surface of space rocks, Didymos and Didymoon. Much like a self-driving car, the vehicle will use sensors, cameras and lasers “to build up a coherent model of its surroundings." Hera will be able to steer itself in realtime rather than having to wait up to several minutes to receive command signals sent by controllers back on Earth.  

Space Mining for Riches

While we’re on the topic of asteroids, some entrepreneurs look up at the celestial bodies whizzing through the heavens and see dollar signs. It’s estimated that mining asteroids for rare materials could be a $100 trillion market. That big payday is a long ways away, but NASA and heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar are making incremental steps to the goalpost, first by developing autonomous mining equipment to be deployed on the lunar surface. The partners are working together on driverless drilling and digging machines that will mine water, oxygen-rich rocks and moon dust during the upcoming 2024 Artemis mission to the moon. 

The Driverless Decade

It remain unknown exactly when reliable autonomous technology will completely take over from us human navigators. But work is currently being done in earnest to hurry that inevitable day when we hand over the keys of our vehicles to A.I. technology, likely, for the good of all mankind.  

Check out Part I - land vehicles; Part II - autonomous aircraft; Part III - autonomous ships

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