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Remote-control robot
An artist’s conception shows a Mantis robotic arm at work on Tethers Unlimited’s Refabricator 3-D printer and recycler. (Tethers Unlimited / Olis Robotics Illustration)

Two space tech companies that are headquartered in the Seattle area, Olis Robotics and Tethers Unlimited, are joining forces to create a new kind of remote-controlled robotic system that could be used on the International Space Station or other off-Earth outposts.

The companies say they’ve signed an agreement to explore further development of the system, in an arrangement that follows up on past collaborations.

Seattle-based Olis Robotics’ software platform allows robots to perform some tasks autonomously and reduce operator workload on other tasks. The platform makes it possible for robots in remote locations to execute their prescribed tasks safely even if their links with remote operators are subject to time delays or data dropouts.

That’s just the kind of resiliency that’s required for space operations, Olis CEO Don Pickering said. “Our variable autonomy software platform allows operators anywhere in the world to command new levels of precision, safety and efficiency in remotely operating robotics in space,” he explained in a news release.

Olis has already started adapting its software platform to control the robotic hardware that’s being developed by Tethers Unlimited with NASA funding, including the Kraken robotic arm and a telerobotic manipulator system known as Mantis.

“Our collaboration with Olis Robotics will integrate advanced teleoperation and variable autonomy capabilities into our Kraken arm and Mantis payload, providing the ability to offload menial, repetitive tasks from the astronauts to remote operators,” said Rob Hoyt, Tethers Unlimited’s president and CEO. “Imagine how much more science we can get out of the ISS if we can have a graduate student in a lab controlling experiments that currently we’d need to wait weeks or months to have an astronaut do.”

Hoyt said the partnership is aimed at producing a remote-controlled system for in-space experiments, materials testing and manufacturing processes. It’ll be suitable for use on the International Space Station and future orbital outposts. “We expect this collaborative effort to enable lower costs when performing existing operations, address the needs of future space habitats, and help enable humanity to be a spacefaring society,” he said.

In a statement emailed to GeekWire, Pickering said the partnership will “push the limits of what’s possible in space robotics.”

“This is a great example of how, with our innovative software, Olis Robotics can partner with an experienced, disruptive hardware company like Tethers to deliver critical commercial space applications,” Pickering said.

Olis Robotics and Tethers Unlimited say they’re already talking with customers who are interested in having such a robotic system available on the International Space Station. The system would operate in a space station locker to conduct commercial and academic experiments. The two companies say the system could be ready to go as early as next year.

Update for 3:20 p.m. PT July 18: NASA Watch’s Keith Cowing reminded me that Tethers Unlimited’s Refabricator 3-D printer and recycler was flown up to the space station and installed in February.

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