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  • Maria Targońska

Exploring the Potential of Industrial Automation by Studying Deep Space Technology

One example of industrial automation in specimen collection


In October 2020, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft managed to achieve a successful specimen collection from the surface of asteroid 101955 Bennu using advanced automation technologies while in orbit around it. The samples collected, which are expected to be safely returned to Earth by 2023, hold the potential to significantly enhance our understanding of the chemical composition of the Solar System and its development. Neil Ballinger, who serves as the Head of EMEA at the industrial parts supplier EU Automation, delves into the crucial role that industrial automation plays in giving the ability for such specimen collection missions and highlights the manufacturing industry's capacity to draw valuable lessons from this new research endeavor.


Automation technologies - maximize efficiency and reliability in manufacturing processes


The TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism) on OSIRIS-REx stands out as an impressive feature in the realm of space probes. It comprises a 3.35-meter electrically actuated robotic arm with three articulated joints and a sample collecting apparatus located at one end. This robotic arm is ingeniously designed to function autonomously, with every operation meticulously pre-programmed by NASA ground teams. Manual control is rendered unfeasible due to the considerable distance between the probe and Bennu, where it takes a minimum of six hours for any command to complete a round trip. This autonomy concept closely mirrors the application of robotic arms in manufacturing facilities, akin to those by FANUC, which manufactures a variety of robotics, including those capable of autonomous processes in lights-out facilities, a parallel to TAGSAM's activities in the space environment.


Automation technologies - no need to maintain operations


Due to the inaccessibility of the TAGSAM, maintenance is impossible, so NASA was determined to design the probe to operate maintenance-free and included redundant sets of actuators and position sensors as control systems to reduce the potentially hazardous risks of performance failure. This approach can be compared to manufacturers operating automation equipment, where maintenance is a fact of life.


Development in automation technologies - peak efficiency achieved in sample collection


Nonetheless, cutting-edge technological advances now enable the integration of sensors into equipment, facilitating proactive strategies for downtime reduction and performance optimization. By incorporating intelligent connected sensors as control systems into machinery, production managers can promptly receive notifications if any irregularities in processes occur, allowing for immediate corrective actions to be taken. The aggregation of data from these interconnected sensors, coupled with the utilization of predictive analytics software processes, can identify potential issues throughout a facility. This industrial automation empowers manufacturing specimen to order necessary components in advance and strategize rapid repairs, preempting any production line halts. These proactive methods effectively lead to curtailed downtime and diminish the necessity for unplanned maintenance, ultimately having operational peak efficiency obtained.

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