Tentacle-like robot to take out trash in space

Xinhua
Removing trash in space will now be easier thanks to a China-developed continuum robotic arm.
Xinhua

Removing trash in space will now be easier thanks to a China-developed continuum robotic arm.

Inspired by human limbs, most robots are created with discrete links rigidly connected by joints. The continuum robot, in contrast, can move by bending through a series of continuous arcs producing motion akin to tentacles or snakes.

Researchers from Tianjin University have developed such a robotic arm that can be used to chase down and collect debris from satellites and other space technology orbiting high above Earth.

The robotic arm, which resembles the arm of an octopus or the trunk of an elephant, includes a central backbone made up of a superelastic metal alloy of nickel and titanium, which can revert naturally back to its original shape after being bent or deformed by outside forces. It also has a camera and a grasping claw attached to the head.

A 12-second video released by the university shows a precise capture by the robot, which snakes its way through a tricky maze without human help and catches a subject no bigger than a ping pong ball.

Lead researcher Kang Rongjie who is also an associate professor at the university’s Center for Advanced Mechanisms and Robotics said the continuum robotic arm in experiments exhibited better flexibility and adaptability to the external environment than conventional robots, which require tactile sensors.

The team has designed a variable stiffness mechanism, powered by a set of embedded shape memory alloy springs, to enhance the robotic arm’s load capacity. When the robot reaches a predetermined operation position, the springs can lock its drive rods and constraint disks together to increase its stiffness by up to 200 percent.

The team is cooperating with a Chinese aerospace research institute on ground testing and to examine its performance in grabbing difficult targets.

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