NASA-funded space robots will grab objects in orbit using arms controlled from Earth

The company that will work with US Space Force has also won some NASA contracts.
Loukia Papadopoulos
A PickNik space robot concept called Tridex..jpg
A PickNik space robot concept called Tridex.

PickNik Robotics 

It's official: robots are here to stay in space. Robotics software and engineering company PickNik Robotics announced on Tuesday that it has won a SpaceWERX contract to work on robotics for the US Space Force, according to a press release acquired by IE.

In addition, the company was also recently awarded two more contracts for space robotics work: a NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I contract and a Colorado Advanced Industries Accelerator (AIA) grant.

Three wins

“These three wins provide additional validation of our work in space robotics, a major focus area for our company,” said Dr. Dave Coleman, CEO of PickNik Robotics.

“We look forward to working with Space Force, NASA, and other organizations in the space economy to help them navigate the complexity and potential of robotics, specifically robotic arms, in that realm.”

SpaceWERX is the innovation arm of the US Space Force. The SpaceWERX contract is for PickNik Robotics to help develop enhanced control for on-orbit capture of space assets and to increase the overall efficiency and safety of US Space Force operations. The work will center around on capturing and manipulating objects in orbit using robotic arms.

PickNik Robotics will use its MoveIt Space software, which allows Earth-based operators to control autonomous robots in IVA (intravehicular activity) and EVA (extravehicular activity) applications. The software was developed with the help of NASA’s Robonaut team.

PickNik Robotics is set to do even more work with NASA thanks to the space agency's SBIR Phase I contract set to further develop supervised autonomy. "PickNik will develop machine learning models that will enable operators to use high-level instructions to direct a robot to do a variety of tasks including opening station module doors, cabinets, and drawers, as well as interact with other objects such as valves, buttons, and switches," notes the press statement.

Last year, PickNik Robotics was awarded a NASA SBIR Phase II contract for advanced planning capabilities for robots in microgravity environments. The work resulted in a general infrastructure for planning and executing motions in a static environment. Insights and experience from that project have largely shaped MoveIt Space.

Finally, PickNik Robotics was also recently awarded a major Advanced Industries Accelerator (AIA) grant for its work in space robotics from the Colorado Office of Economic and International Trade.

Enhancing the safety and lowering the cost of spaceflight

“It is vitally important to enhance safety and lower the cost of spaceflight through robotics, and these three wins will enable us to support that endeavor,” said Dr. Mark Moll, director of research at PickNik Robotics.

“Along with our MoveIt Space and MoveIt Studio software, we have more than 40 people at PickNik Robotics, with 363 years of combined robotics experience, who are ready to help organizations of all kinds embrace the massive opportunity in space.”

In late March 2022, PickNik Robotics announced it was collaborating with Sierra Space on robotics for space habitats and deep space missions. PickNik is also working with Motiv Space Systems and Tethers Unlimited on space robotics. Will the company revolutionize the industry?