NASA’s Robotic Refueling Mission may be more than 200 miles overhead on the International Space Station, but for a core team of West Virginia University students and faculty, the experiment’s aspirations to make satellites work longer in space are anything but remote: they hit very close to home.

Since 2009, an ever-evolving team has been working closely with NASA engineers to jumpstart a new world of satellite repair capabilities in orbit. Technologies born in their facility off of I-79 in Fairmont, W.Va., could one day make their way to space and bring new life to costly spacecraft assets.

Imagine a completely robotic tow-truck full of fuel and repair tools, traveling 22,000 miles over our heads at 6,800 miles per hour. Then picture it approaching a client satellite that was never designed to be serviced.”

-Thomas Evans
WVRTC program manager

When Thomas Evans walks into the 60-foot high West Virginia Robotic Technology Center facility in Fairmont, he sees more than NASA logos, enthusiastic graduate students and multi-jointed robotic arms.

He sees innovation at work: the type of high tech development that accelerates the future, reshapes local industry and affects the lives of individuals nationwide.

Staffed by 10 faculty members and 12 students, and funded by a NASA grant, WVRTC is working hand-in-hand with NASA engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., to develop the technologies needed to robotically fix and repair satellites in space. Five full-time staff members also work at the facility.

For the WVU team that reports to duty daily, the opportunity to work at WVRTC is a source of innovation, inspiration and pride.

Patrick Lewis, a Washington D.C., native and WVU graduate, began at WVRTC as a student worker in 2010 before becoming a full-time systems engineer in 2012. “I couldn’t have asked for a better first job as an engineer.”

The work, he says, is “cutting-edge,” and that’s exactly what makes it exciting and engrossing. “It’s a learning experience. It’s not designing something you already know how to build. It’s never been done before.”

Evans, who serves as WVRTC’s program manager, describes how the facility is helping NASA tackle unique challenges.

“Imagine a completely robotic tow-truck full of fuel and repair tools, traveling 22,000 miles over our heads at 6,800 miles per hour.” Evans said. “Then picture it approaching a client satellite that was never designed to be serviced.

“There isn’t a human in sight: every action has to either be controlled by humans from the ground below, or executed autonomously by the servicer.”

This is where WVRTC’s autonomous machine vision and accompanying algorithms, or computer commands, come into play. WVU experts are working with NASA Goddard’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office to give this conceptual tow truck the robotic eyes, “finger” sensitivity and smarts it would need to safely rendezvous with a customer.

WVRTC’s relationship with NASA has taken WVU faculty and staff to great heights, both literally and figuratively.

In 2011, WVU team members successfully tested their algorithms on a “Zero-G” airplane that simulates the weightlessness of the space environment. Their algorithms allowed a robotic arm to autonomously follow a free-floating target – a test to help NASA understand how WVU’s algorithms can be used to guide a robot to successfully grapple objects in space.

Last year, WVRTC conducted a remote tele-operations demonstration that had Johns Hopkins University engineers in Baltimore, Md., commanding a robot in the WVRTC facility 230 miles away cut a piece of protective satellite insulation. Objectives were met without the slightest slip, and the results provided valuable information on how robots can be controlled from vast distances and still perform complex tasks successfully.

Other WVTRC accomplishments include advancing “smart tool” sensor technology, including tactile, chemical and high-precision vision sensors. WVRTC is also helping NASA develop a new approach to controlling robotic motion under numerous constraints.

While NASA’s servicing mission may itself be conceptual, the technologies themselves are real and applicable to national objectives.

Servicing capabilities could potentially extend the lives of hundreds of orbiting satellites, expensive assets that deliver essential services such as weather reports, cell phone and internet communications, television broadcasts and disaster relief.

The technologies could also encourage the emerging commercial servicing industry that is rapidly gaining momentum.

Both Evans and Lewis see a bright future for WVRTC and the WVU individuals who are investing in its success.

Lewis believes in the Center’s ability to deliver high-quality, world-class products, so much so that he has made the WVRTC a career path and goal.

“That’s a dream of mine, that I could be with the Center from day one as it started up, and be a part of it as it grows.”

Evans regards WVRTC’s work as an important milestone for West Virginia, an achievement that solidifies the state’s position as a hub for game-changing technological developments.

“The WVRTC team and facility have the proven knowledge, creativity and resources to support agencies like NASA to be successful in critical operations,” he said. “It is our goal to expand these capabilities and apply them to additional national interests such as the U.S. Department of Defense and industrial applications. The benefit is substantial; it increases West Virginia’s technology infrastructure and provides advanced career opportunities for the state.”



CONTACT: Mary Dillon, Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources

Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.