4 mins read 25 Jan 2022

Space Agency Releases Australia’s Robotic Roadmap

The Australian Space Agency has released its third roadmap, outlining Australia’s future role in space exploration through robotics and automation – seizing the world-class opportunities Australia has already built through industry sectors.

The Australian Space Agency this week released the Robotics and Automation on Earth and in Space Roadmap 2021-2030 – a 10-year plan that outlines how Australia’s existing remote operation capabilities can be utilised for future space exploration activities.

The roadmap brought together thoughts, ideas and expertise from members across Australian industries (including the space sector), researchers, government agencies, peer space agencies and stakeholder organisations.

Many mining sites across the nation currently use robotic and analytical capabilities, such as digging machinery or drone surveillance, to conduct their manner of business safely – circumnavigating the need for any humans to go into high-risk remote locations. And what the Space Agency is planning on doing is ensuring that the skills, technology and experiences gained from making Australia a world-class leader in these fields, can now be transferred to space operations and activities, such as lunar and asteroid resource mining projects.

This is the third roadmap from a series of seven which the Agency has stated addresses the National Civil Space Priority areas, which include mapping out of the future Australian space workforce and advancing the Australian space industry over the course of the decade.

Previously the Communication Technologies and Services and the Earth Observation roadmaps have been released, with a further four more to go, which will cover topics such as space situational awareness, leapfrog R&D, and access to space.

Australian Expertise utilised Off-Earth

Artist rendition of a future in which a heavily established human presence has been set up and operations have commenced. Credit: Australian Space Agency roadmap.

With some of the harshest and most remote known territories in the world, Australia already excels in utilising robotics across a range of mining activities that have generated billions of dollars for the wider economy.

This roadmap outlines a new opportunity now for local organisations to develop their products and services into new, emerging markets that it is hoped in return will improve the lives of people on Earth. This includes utilising gained knowledge from our industries (such as mining, agricultural, water management) to develop off-Earth construction, maintenance, repair for infrastructure that will exist beyond Earth’s atmosphere in orbit, on the Lunar surface or even beyond, such as mining of asteroids.

A key critical requirement for humans to live beyond Earth’s atmosphere is the need to be able to source resources in-situ rather than having to undergo the costly and expensive exercise of lifting them off Earth. For example, mining water from Lunar craters by robots could then be used to create reserves of hydrogen (for fuel) and oxygen (for breathing). Or utilising the Lunar regolith as material to construct buildings from using large 3D printers which would be transported to the Moon.

However, it is not only the benefits of robotics that Australia could offer when it comes to adding value to the globally growing space industries and economies. Across much of the harsh interior of the continent is an opportunity to develop terrestrial analogue facilities – with our dry, rocky, desert environments simulated the properties of large astronomical bodies like the surface of Mars.

Here, large habitats could be developed with humans simulating an analogue mission on a distant body in space or testing of rovers and robots could be facilitated with newly developed assets, prior to sending them into space, thus reducing risk.

Australian Moon Rover

Artist rendition of the Australian Lunar rover. Credit: Dept. of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources.

The overall timeline of the Robotics and Automation on Earth and in Space Roadmap is outlined in the Space Agency’s document, under each of the different drivers – such as remote operations, in-situ resource utilisation and analogue facilities.

Many of the targets outline Lunar surface demonstrator capabilities around the middle of the decade and a look towards Mars and Near-Earth Asteroids towards the end of the decade. The establishment of terrestrial analogue facilities will likely be up and running by approximately 2025, according to the roadmap.

But Australia has already started taking a few steps forward, in particular with signing a deal with NASA recently on building and deploying a Lunar rover as early as 2026. The trailblazer program is aiming to collect Lunar regolith from the surface, before transferring it to a NASA in-situ resource utilisation system where it will then attempt to extract the oxide from the material.

The small rover (under 20-kilograms) is being developed and led by a consortium of space industry stakeholders, businesses, and research organisations.


Video credit: Australian Space Agency.