This focus area includes the development of robotic systems and technologies (hardware and software) that will enable and enhance future space exploration, science, and service missions. In the coming decades, robotic systems will continue to change the way space is explored. Robots will be used in all mission phases: as independent explorers operating in environments too distant or hostile for humans, as precursor systems operating before crewed missions, as crew assistants working alongside and supporting humans, as caretakers of assets left behind, and as remote agents servicing and assembling critical space instruments and infrastructure.
As science and exploration activities reach further into the solar system and humans continue to work and live in space, establishing a sustainable presence on the moon and progressing on to Mars, there will be an increased reliance on intelligent and versatile robots capable of performing a variety of tasks in remote settings under dynamic mission conditions. Technologies are needed to improve robotic mobility across extreme surface terrains, on and around small bodies, and in challenging environmental conditions. This includes hazard detection, sensing/perception, robotic navigation, grappling/anchoring, actuation, novel locomotion paradigms, and innovative technologies to enhance situational awareness and user interfaces for the semi-autonomous command and control of remote robotic systems. Robotic manipulation likewise provides a critical capability for servicing and assembling equipment in space, for sample collection and handling, science utilization in the absence of the crew, and as a means to free crew from mundane logistics management tasks or augment crew performance to increase efficiency and maximize useful work in situ. Effective affordance recognition and scene understanding, grasp planning, robotic end-effectors, force control, task primitives/task parameterization, approaches to human-robot interaction for supervised autonomy, and robust, fail-operational designs are all relevant technologies needed to accomplish robotic manipulation tasks internal to space vehicles and habitats, on the lunar surface, while interacting with orbital assets, and on distant planetary bodies. New technologies are desired to enable or enhance robotic docking and refueling operations, lunar surface site preparation, and the mobile dexterous manipulation required to handle tools, interfaces, and materials not specifically designed for robots in support of establishing, maintaining, and utilizing science and exploration infrastructure.
Advances beyond our current robotic capabilities can be realized through new component technologies, the development and integration of novel robotic systems, ground testing of potential solutions, advances in software and simulation tools, and flight demonstration of new robots and robotic task performance. Hardware and software, both onboard remote robots and contributing to improved human-robot interaction and supervisory control by remote operators, will improve safety and increase the complexity of tasks robots can efficiently and effectively perform in support of NASA’s Moon to Mars objectives, the broader space economy, and an array of terrestrial applications with comparable technology needs. Relevant overlap exists with other focus areas targeting advances in autonomy and hardware suited for the extreme environments of space destinations, as technologies are sought to enable productive, sustainable robotic science and exploration in remote, and evermore challenging, reaches of the solar system.