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Robot arms building in space

October 1, 2019

Joint ASU-NASA project seems straight out of science fiction

A rocket launches into space. It escapes the Earth’s atmosphere and falls away from the payload. The nose cone peels away. The main payload, a 15,000-pound satellite, deploys.

In the space between the satellite and the rocket, a big ring holds smaller payloads. They’re components for something larger — a solar array or a radio antenna perhaps. One by one they’re ejected off the ring into space. Sometime later, another rocket delivers a set of cubesats — spacecraft the size of a large shoebox.

These cubesats have small arms, about the length of a 6-year-old child’s. They orient themselves in space, spot the floating components and begin assembling them.

The arm is a creation from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the arm’s task of locating and reaching out for components is being developed in a joint project between JPL and Arizona State University.

The cubesats have global positioning systems, star trackers (optical devices that determine position and attitude by measuring the positions of stars) and cameras to locate the components they will assemble.

The cameras will compute the position and three-dimensional orientation of the components floating nearby.

“Once the robot has that information, it knows how to move its arm to pick up the part at the right place,” said Renaud Detry, a robotics technologist with JPL’s computer vision group. “For us, it seems so natural and intuitive. When we see something, we just reach out for it. We don’t even realize the complexity of the problem our brain is solving. When you try to implement that behavior on a robot, it’s extremely complicated.”

“Effectively satellites in space would not just be passive observers any more,” said Heni Ben Amor, an assistant professor in ASU’s School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering. “They could engage in all sorts of tasks.”

Couldn’t astronauts assemble things in space? Something big — sure. A lot of little things? That’s a job for a robot. How about remote control by someone in a ground station? Ground control is expensive. And the time delay from Earth gets longer and longer the farther away from the planet you are.

“For a simple task like moving a part from A to B, (robots) are probably more reliable than humans are at this point,” Detry said.

Building this is anything but simple. The object of the project is to prove all of the artificial intelligence and robotics technology can fit into a tightly constrained, energy-efficient form.

“We saw this idea where we can do all of these crazy things of detecting an object, going and grasping it, and assembling it into another object on relatively low-compute hardware,” Ben Amor said. “You have problems that cover the whole complexity range in space. You have problems that are aligned with the complexity of assembling a car on Earth, where you have a robot that executes the same motion again and again. It doesn’t need a lot of intelligence. That requires us to have an extremely good knowledge of the place where the different parts are located.”

What Ben Amor, Detry and two students — Shubham Sonawani and Siva Kailas — are working on is, according to the project abstract, “a rendezvous and proximity operations software package that works within the avionics and power constraints of a CubeSat form factor (to) leverage state-of-the-art machine vision, motion planning and motor control.”

Normally you would need a desktop or larger computer to do the computation for a robot like this. That’s not possible in space. It also has to be radiation-hardened.

“Your computer at home is probably much more capable than many of the computers in space,” Ben Amor said. The team cracked that problem with a small and cheap off-the-shelf model used in engineering education.

“The idea is to use real-time computer vision on low-compute hardware to localize objects,” he said.

The arm was developed by four technologists at JPL: Rudranarayan Mukherjee, Ryan McCormick, Spencer Backus and Kris Wehage.

The team has been working on the project for almost a year. It will be presented in a November conference at JPL. The project is funded by JPL's Strategic University Research Partnership program.

Top photo: A mockup of a cubesat robotic arm developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory reaching for previously launched components. The arm's controlling "brains" are being developed at ASU's School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, led by Assistant Professor Heni Ben Amor. The arm will be attached to the cubesats and will locate and assemble components in space. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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Sun Devils go greener for Campus Sustainability Month

October 1, 2019

ASU rolls out series of planned events and activities, and a good carbon cleanse

Even though Arizona State University is situated in the Sonoran Desert, it happens to be one of the “greenest” places on Earth.

The university is a model of sustainability with 54 LEED certified buildings, solar installations at each campus and a culture that encourages seeking innovative ways to make a positive impact on the world with a commitment to climate neutrality.

ASU continues to raise the bar in its sustainability education and leadership in 2019 and will participate in Campus Sustainability Month, which starts Oct. 1.

Held every October, the monthlong event is an international celebration of sustainability in higher education designed to engage and inspire incoming students and other campus stakeholders to be sustainability change agents.

Senior Sustainability Scientist Michael Dalrymple works with many change agents across the university to head up ASU’s aggressive operational sustainability goals, which include making the university carbon neutral by 2025. ASU Now spoke to Dalrymple about Campus Sustainability Month and how the Sun Devil community can participate.

Man in stripped shirt smiling

Michael Dalrymple 

Question: What is Campus Sustainability Month?

Answer: It is a national campaign, held every October, started by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) to promote sustainability on college and university campuses around the country. It is an opportunity for everyone in the ASU community to become more aware and engaged in achieving sustainability on campus. According to AASHE, “The main goal of Campus Sustainability Month is to raise the visibility of campus sustainability and provide campus sustainability advocates with a platform through which to deepen campus engagement around sustainability."

Q: How can people get involved?

A: Recently, in ASU Now, an article put forward 10 simple ways Sun Devils can go green. These are practical ways anyone can start to get involved in sustainability. People can also visit AASHE's website to learn more about Campus Sustainability Month in general and also see what is happening across the globe. Additionally, individuals can participate in any of the events being held on the Tempe and Poly campuses, a calendar of which will be live soon.

Q: Why is sustainability so important to ASU?

A: ASU is and has been a leader in sustainability, from President Michael Crow being a founder of the ACUPCC Climate Commitment to setting up the first School of Sustainability in the country. We want ASU to be the example of how a small city — ASU has over 125,000 community members, bigger than Flagstaff — can figure out how to operate sustainably. To be a Sun Devil is to be sustainable.

Q: One event this week is about greening your home or office — what are some easy ways that people can do that?

A: Greening your home and/or office can be an exciting process that celebrates creativity and stimulates a sense of well-being. Several simple ways to green your space include:


• If you haven’t started recycling, look into your local recycling program and begin reducing waste-to-landfill responsibly. In Tempe or Phoenix, you can start recycling and reduce the size of your landfill bin and save money. If you’ve been recycling for a while, think about composting opportunities as this will further reduce your waste-to-landfill as well as provide nutrient rich soil for your garden.

• Identify money saving practices that also green your space, like switching to LEDs once your old lightbulbs go out or installing low-flow fixtures that reduce water consumption as well as hot water needs.

• Remember to change the air filter for your HVAC as this can improve efficiency by 5% to 15%.

• Utilizing fans can allow you to adjust your thermostat setting by 4 degrees during the summer.

• Try to find ways to reduce consumptive practices as much as possible: Switch to towels that you wash, rather than paper towels.

• Then focus on what you can reuse: Switch out store-bought water bottles like disposable plastic with reusable bottles — Nalgene, Hydro Flask, etc. Utilize reusable bags for groceries.


• Ask your office purchaser to buy 100% recycled paper.

• Transition to double-sided printing and use single-sided copies for scrap paper.

• Identify alternative transportation — walking, biking, public transportation — to and from work one or two days a week.

• Set electronics to enter sleep mode after no longer than 10 minutes when not in use.

• Turn off lights when leaving.

• Request digital copies instead of printed.

• Support paperless software like DocuSign, Google Drive, Drop Box, etc.

• Reuse office supplies before purchasing new, where applicable.

Q: What other events can people look forward to?

A: Here's a schedule of events we have planned for Campus Sustainability Month: 

Sun Devil Volleyball green game: 7 p.m. Oct. 4 at Wells Fargo Arena, celebrating sustainable athletic events.

• Zero Waste Team Diversion Demonstration: 10:30 a.m.–1 p.m. Oct. 9 at Memorial Union Mall Space 24, supporting zero waste efforts and ASU’s goal for a circular resource system.

"Chasing Coral" documentary: 6:30–8:30 p.m. Oct. 10 at Marston Exploration Theater, emphasizing the impacts from climate change on the most diverse ocean ecosystems.

Sustainability Walking Tour: 8:30–10 a.m. Oct. 17 meeting at Fulton Center Lobby Area Near garage entry, showcasing ASU's commitment to sustainability via the built environment.

• Sun Devil Dining A Taste of Tooker: 11:30 a.m.–1 p.m. Oct. 23 at Tooker House Dining Hall, supporting ASU's food-reconnection sustainability goal. Stop by to enjoy local and organic foods.

• Fourth Annual ASU State of Sustainability Summit: 9–11 a.m. Nov. 4 at ASU Memorial Union Ventana B+C, celebrating collaborative action across ASU and showcasing achievements that support ASU’s sustainability goals.

Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU News