As space technology improves, more low-orbit real estate will eventually fill up over the decades with an increasing amount of satellites, space stations and (we assume) Imperial battle spheres (that’s no moon), roguish smugglers and Rebel hideouts. And all that stellar swag is going to create even more space junk. But one researcher thinks the solution to this future waste problem will be solved by drones – specifically drones based on a tiny Asian reptile.
Illinois Institute of Technology engineering professor Matthew Spenko is leading a research team to develop the next generation of space-trash drones for NASA. Spenko’s team is looking to the Asian gecko’s climbing ability to design drones that can roll and even climb and adhere to any vertical surface. Spenko’s concept is one among many in drone research to be modeled on an animal species.
“In space there is no suction, and magnetized surfaces can’t be guaranteed,” Spenko said in a recent interview. “Traditional methods of adhesion are ineffective there. A typical approach would be to design a robot that could attach to grapple points on debris. But much of the debris, such as satellites, don’t have grapple points, making it difficult to grasp.”
According to NASA, more than 21,000 orbital debris larger than 10 cm are known to exist in low-earth orbit and the estimated number of particles between 1 and 10 cm in diameter is approximately 500,000.
Spenko’s team hopes to marry an adhesion system that mimics the climbing behavior of geckos along with electrostatic devices that will power the drone’s gripping arm.
“Used alone, the nano-hairs or the electrodes are limited in the types of surfaces they can attach to,” Spenko said. “Combined, they result in a gripping mechanism that is not surface dependent and able to hold seven times the robot’s body weight.”
Drones are already making an impact in space-based research. At the Swamp Works lab at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, a team of engineers is developing a robotic drone that will be able to fly across the oxygen-thin surface of Mars or the airless environs of an asteroid, will be tasked with gathering samples from areas inaccessible to rolling vehicles like rovers.
Dubbed Extreme Access Flyers, the drones should be able to extract small amounts of planetary soil to search for signs of water-ice.
Jason is a longstanding contributor to DroneLife with an avid interest in all things tech. He focuses on anti-drone technologies and the public safety sector; police, fire, and search and rescue.
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