SSL wins $20 million DARPA contract to build robotic arms

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded Space Systems Loral a $20.7 million contract to design and build two robotic arms, a critical element of the agency’s plan to create an on-orbit servicing demonstration for satellites in geosynchronous orbit, the company announced July 21.

DARPA has made its Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites, or RSGS, one of its high-priority space initiatives in recent years. The program aims to demonstrate a robotic servicing spacecraft in or near geosynchronous orbit that can safely perform a series of operations, such as inspecting a damaged satellite or releasing a stuck solar array. A launch is targeted for late 2020 or early 2021.

DARPA officials see the robotic arms as the first step in their RSGS system. The agency asked for $33 million for the program in its 2017 budget request.

“If we’re able to succeed, [RSGS] will fundamentally change the architectures in geo,” Brad Tousley, the director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said in May. “There are many defense systems that you’d like to be able to inspect and figure out exactly what happened.”

In March, DARPA said the robotic arms would allow a servicing satellite to connect to satellites not designed to be grappled. The arms also would include multiple joints to create”dexterous movement.” This would allow the servicing satellite to help relocate a satellite deployed into the wrong orbit, install upgrades, or provides high-resolution inspections.

SSL of Palo Alto, California, said the arms build on the heritage of another DARPA project, the robotic arm known as Front-end Robotics Enabling Near-term Demonstration, or FREND, which dates back more than a decade.

SSL is known as a manufacturer of large commercial telecommunications satellites. But its parent company, MDA Corp. of Richmond, British Columbia, is a leader in space robotics. The company said this contract builds on previous research from contracts in 2012 and 2013. In September, the agency awarded the company a five-month study contract valued at $250,000 that would enable the installation of antennas aboard satellites already on orbit.

“The ability to safely and cooperatively service satellites in GEO would expand public and private opportunities in space,” Al Tadros, SSL’s vice president, of civil and defense business, said in a July 21 press release. “It could enable entirely new spacecraft designs and operations, including on-orbit assembly and maintenance, which could lower construction and deployment costs while extending satellite utility, resilience and reliability.”

The Naval Research Laboratory is managing the robotic arm contract for DARPA.

After about nine months of on-orbit demonstrations, DARPA intends to transition the RSGS program to a commercial operator to run the servicer. The agency expects to select a commercial partner for the program in November.