Recent advancements in robotics and computer science have enabled the development of increasingly advanced systems for space exploration, including spacecraft, assistive robots and on-board computer interfaces. To operate safely and reliably in space or in other celestial environments, these systems should meet specific requirements and have unique sets of characteristics.
Motiv Space Systems is an aerospace and motion control company based in Pasadena that specialises in the development of robotic systems for space exploration and motion control avionics. Motiv was founded in 2014 by three highly skilled robotics engineers, Chris Thayer (the company’s president and CEO), Brett Lindenfeld (VP of Operations) and Tom McCarthy (VP of Business Development), with the mission of creating high quality, state-of-the-art robotic systems that can operate efficiently and reliably in space.
Motiv engineers have already worked on a number of successful projects and developed robotic systems for several space exploration missions, including the Perseverance Arm, a robotic arm that was integrated and deployed on NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover. In 2020, Motiv also launched the xLink Robotic Arm System, a modular and efficient robotic arm with a competitive price that can operate in space.
Motiv is currently collaborating with NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) on a new exciting project, aimed at developing an advanced robotic arm deployable on the moon and in other celestial environments. This year, NASA will launch Artemis I, the first of a series of missions that should enable further human exploration of the Moon and Mars.
In the first of these missions, NASA will test the ability of its Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket to carry humans to the moon by 2024.
In collaboration with NASA’s JPL, Motiv is now developing COLDArm—short for the Cold Operable Lunar Deployable Arm—its robotic arm that can operate in cryogenic environments, such as the surface of the Moon. According to Motiv engineers, this sophisticated robotic arm will be able to operate at a temperature of −180°C. This means that it could operate in parts of the Moon that are known for their extremely low temperatures, such as its lunar South Pole.
In contrast with other robotic arms deployed in past space exploration missions, COLDArm will not require a heating source. Its innovative design should reduce the overall power consumption of space operations carried out by both rover and lander technologies.
In this exclusive interview with Electronics Point, Motiv’s VP of Business Development Tom McCarthy talks about the COLDArm project and the company’s ongoing collaboration with engineers at NASA JPL. McCarthy, who holds a BASc (Bachelor of Applied Science) in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from the University of Notre Dame, has over two decades of experience working in established technology companies, including JPL, Atomate Corporation, and MDA US Systems.
Thomas McCarthy, VP of Business Development at Motiv Space Systems
Image credit: Motiv Space Systems
Ingrid Fadelli: First of all, could you briefly introduce yourself and tell us more about your professional journey so far?
Tom McCarthy: I started out as an Electrical Engineer at JPL. There, I was fortunate to work on developing small computers and control electronics for planetary science rovers. Later, these experiences allowed me to pursue a career in the commercial industry, where I could work with groups who developed space robotics for a variety of applications, including Mars Rovers, Mars Landers, Orbital Servicing Missions, and Lunar Landers.
IF: What is your role at Motiv Space Systems, and what projects are you currently involved in?
TMC: I am Motiv’s VP of Business Development. Essentially, I try to create a bridge between customers and engineers. Over the past year, I have spent time working on the development of new electronic and robotic technologies that could become important tools for the lunar CLPS and ARTEMIS missions. Eventually, these technologies will support human explorations of the Moon and Mars.
IF: Could you tell us a little bit about Motiv Space Systems’ partnership with NASA’s JPL for the development of a new robotic arm, and explain how this collaboration came about?
TMC: The COLDArm is a very exciting project. JPL and Motiv were each independently developing technologies that could operate in cryogenic environments (-180°C). JPL was developing gears using a material known as Bulk Metallic Glass, while Motiv had been working on control electronics that could work at -180°C, way beyond typical operating thresholds. These are critical component technologies that needed a larger system application to validate their development. So, naturally, combining these capabilities into the form of a robotic arm that could be built as a Lunar CLPS payload made a lot of sense.
IF: Could you tell us about COLDArm? For instance, how does it work, what are its components, and what are its unique features and characteristics?
TMC: COLDArm is an ongoing activity between JPL and Motiv. It will notionally launch in early 2024. The primary objective for COLDArm is to survive and operate throughout the lunar night without any special accommodation, such as keep-alive heating or other means which require power. The goal is to develop components and technologies that can be integrated into systems and can withstand a wide range of environmental factors.
As mentioned before, the avionics and gear trains are quite special, as they have the capability to position the arm. Special harnessing to support instrumentation and all the interconnectivity between the arm and the lander are also being developed, to ensure that the system survives the harsh conditions. The mechanical system also needs to be evaluated to be compliant through critical mission timelines covering stowage, launch restraint release, and operations.
The Perseverance Rover Arm
Image credit: Motiv Space Systems
IF: How does COLDArm compare to other robotic arms designed to be used in space?
TMC: From a topology standpoint, COLDArm is similar to prior Mars lander forms. Its integrated technology components are quite different, as they have been especially designed to address the environment.
IF: When do you think COLDArm will first be deployed in space? And what tests, if any, do you still need to run before then?
TMC: There will be several test campaigns to ensure the good performance of all the relevant technology and future instruments to be deployed by COLDArm. Our best expectations are that landed operations will happen on the Moon in early 2024.
IF: What were Motiv Space Systems’ unique contributions to the project? And what were NASA JPL’s unique contributions?
TMC: Motiv is developing the arm’s architecture, harnessing system, and cryo-operating avionics; while JPL is focusing on instrument sensing, cryo gearboxes, and system computing.
IF: What do you feel are the most notable aspects and contributions of your recent collaboration with NASA JPL?
TMC: Motiv Space Systems brings excellent expertise and creativity to the development of new technologies for a constantly evolving space ecosystem. We see ourselves as a complementary fit with our colleagues at JPL, and can execute as an industrial partner to continue working towards a greater level of sustainability of technology.
IF: How do you plan to develop COLDArm further in the future?
TMC: We anticipate that COLDArm will merely be an initial inspiration for the development of harsh environment space systems with unique and advanced capabilities. We will continue to expand our product capabilities to drive performance enhancements for future generations of manipulator or mobility technologies.
IF: Are there any other ongoing/future projects at Motiv Space Systems that you would like to share with us?
TMC: We are currently involved in the OSAM-2 mission as the robotics system provider. This is a unique mission aimed at demonstrating in-orbit additive manufacturing and assembly techniques. We think that this will be a powerful demonstration of capabilities that have been evolving over several decades and will foster future manufacturing and construction capabilities in space.
The development of COLDArm is part of the Commercial Lunar Layload Services, a NASA program aimed at sending small robotic landers and rovers to the Moon. So far, researchers have developed very few components that can operate on the Moon or during a lunar night, which is when temperatures on the Moon are at their lowest point.
The development of COLDArm, which combines some of the most advanced technologies developed by Motiv and JPL, is funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate via the company’s Game Changing Development Program. To find out more about the project or learn about other robotic arms developed by Motiv, visit Motiv Space Systems’ news page.