Robots designed to help humans live in space

Isbel Lázaro.

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The Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats Institute (RETHi), led by Purdue University in collaboration with the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), the University of Connecticut and the University of Texas at San Antonio, has as its primary goal “to design and operate resilient habitats in deep space capable of adapting to, absorbing and recovering rapidly from both expected and unexpected perturbations.”

Justin Werfel, principal researcher in robotics at SEAS, leads the team charged with developing technologies that enable autonomous robots to repair or replace damaged components in such habitats.

Since the project’s inception in 2019, Werfel and his team, which includes Robert Wood, Harry Lewis Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, and Marlyn McGrath at SEAS, have created innovative robotic arms and grippers, improved systems to foster human-robot collaboration, as well as new methodologies for designing equipment suitable for robot intervention.

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Robots and SmartHabs: challenges and expectations.

One of the main challenges in designing robots for so-called SmartHabs is the need to be multifunctional to inhabit deep space. Most industrial robots, such as those used in automotive manufacturing or warehousing, are highly specialized and perform only a few specific tasks. However, deep space habitats will not have room to accommodate numerous specialized robots.

Instead, one or more multifunctional robots should be capable of performing a wide variety of tasks, including emergency repairs. A project along these lines seeks to develop multi-mode grippers capable of changing their shape to hold various types of objects in different ways.

“Human hands can adapt to many functions, including those that need high precision, require large forces, or those that can benefit from compliance,” Wood said.“This design attempts to capture analogous adaptive behavior to increase the variety of tasks possible with a single gripper.”


In a paper published in IEEE, Werfel and his team, in collaboration with Harvard Graduate School of Design (HGSD) and Pusan National University in South Korea, have developed a gripper with fingers made of reconfigurable scissor links, which can change the number of finger joints as needed.

This clamp has three different modes. In the first mode, the fingers are short and stiff, allowing them to grasp objects firmly and securely. In the second mode, the fingers acquire an articulation that allows the gripper to perform manipulations similar to those of a hand, facilitating the movement and rotation of objects without releasing them. The last mode adds two additional joints, allowing the fingers to passively adapt to the shape of an object and distribute contact pressure, which is useful for gripping delicate or irregularly shaped objects.

Co-authors of this article include Junghan Kwon of Pusan National University, SEAS graduate students David Bombara and Clark Teeple, Joonhaeng Lee and Chuck Hoberman of HGSD and Madera.

About smart habitats

The first SmartHabs, intelligent space habitats, will likely be no larger than a mobile home and equipped with a variety of devices. Soft robots are presented as a safer option for operating in close proximity to humans compared to conventional rigid robots. In addition, these soft robots can be deformed, facilitating their insertion into tight spaces. However, flexibility means that they lack the strength needed for some specific tasks.

To meet this challenge, RETHi’s robotics team has devised a soft robotic arm capable of stiffening, thus providing greater strength and payload capacity. The results of this research have been published inScience Robotics.

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