Us Military Sending Robots to Space by 2021

Tuesday, 21 November 2017 - 11:12AM
Tuesday, 21 November 2017 - 11:12AM
Us Military Sending Robots to Space by 2021
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Image credit: NASA
We're entering the new age of space travel.

As private companies and more and more countries continue to enter space, we're fast approaching the next step in the evolution of our species' race to conquer the final frontier: the US military has announced it's sending robots to space in the next four years.

As commercial spaceflight continues to grow in popularity, we're going to see a larger number of artificial satellites in orbit around our planet.

These satellites require maintenance, and it's necessary to find a more efficient way of performing repairs—sending humans up to check on these things is a frustrating and costly experience. With autonomous robot technology also advancing in leaps and bounds, it makes sense to get drones up into orbit to deal with breakages and repairs so that human missions can be saved for more important things.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has brought this subject to the foreground this week amid discussions of what a robotic space service force might look like, how they'd operate, and when they'd begin being active.

DARPA has recommended that robots enter orbit for initial repair missions as early as 2021, and has stated that, considering the speed with which this technology will become commonplace once it's in use, now is the time to start talking about that most wondrous of roadblocks to scientific creativity: legislation.

According to DARPA Program Manager Todd Master:

Opening quote
We need to work on a set of rules...How do we ensure this is conducted in a safe and responsible fashion? [Companies] want to give confidence to investors and insurers and customers that they are doing things safely.
Closing quote

As dry as legal negotiations can be, this is a necessary step to ensuring that satellites are being looked after, and that collateral damage won't be caused by the robots who perform these operations. We've seen how eager many commercial bodies are when it comes to space travel, and it's likely that considering that these companies will be looking for the quickest and cheapest way to get stuff done, it's important to have rules in place to make sure things run smoothly.

There are a few challenges to getting this legislation up and running—not least, the fact that space doesn't necessarily fall under a certain country's jurisdiction. DARPA's involvement in this issue likely stems from the agency's frustrations at attempting to manage partnerships for satellite missions at present, as a recent legal battle surrounding a government contract delayed one project by six months.

As agencies, companies, and other interested parties come together to discuss what the rules of the road should be for orbital robot missions, it's likely that connections will be forged to allow for far more efficient maintenance of satellites. Essentially, once the space around the planet is less of a free-for-all, it'll be far simpler for robotics engineers to be able to get stuck in with the fun stuff: blasting their machines into orbit to perform complex tune-ups and repairs on the growing number of important satellites that orbit the world.

Orbit is just the beginning—once autonomous robots are being used regularly in maintenance on satellites, they'll be in a better position to travel the stars on our behalf. There are several ongoing development projects that could see robots exploring the solar system, or even building human habitats on distant worlds in preparation for our future arrival.

Once the floodgates are opened and there are protocols in place, the legal negotiations of actually getting a probe or a drone launched can be streamlined so that humanity can benefit as much as possible from the joys of robot space exploration.
DARPA Sending Robots to Space by 2021