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New lab trains space robots in weightless environments

 Two out of the three free-flyers, or "spacebots". In the background: Elias Krantz, PhD student at K
Two out of the three free-flyers, or "spacebots". In the background: Elias Krantz, PhD student at KTH, and part of the DISCOWER team.
Published May 20, 2024

At a newly opened lab at KTH, space robots are training to navigate in weightless environments. The lab, one of the biggest of its kind in Europe, was built by the WASP NEST-project DISCOWER.

The goal? To develop software and hardware for autonomous robots capable of navigating independently in weightless environments, such as space and underwater.

“I've long believed that underwater and space robotics share a common challenge: unconventional gravitational conditions. Buoyancy in water and weightlessness in space present similar hurdles.
Testing autonomous systems, where robots move independently without direct human control, in these environments is difficult or impossible”, says Dimos Dimarogonas, professor in automatic control at KTH.

The challenge of testing means that there has previously been limited research on multi-robot systems operating autonomously in weightless environments, Pedro Roque, PhD student in the project, explains. In fact, the DISCOWER lab is one of the first of its kind in Europe, Pedro Roque continues, that directly looks at the combination of the two environments:

“With this new laboratory within our project, we can help bridge the research gap. We have constructed a two-dimensional simulation of space to address multi-robot systems research. Here, we can train both software and hardware for autonomous multi-robot systems in an environment that closely resembles space, and later, integrate them with underwater facilities that will be built in the same area.”

Part of the DISCOWER team. From left: Professor Dimos Dimarogonas (KTH), PhD student Pedro Roque (KT
Part of the DISCOWER team. From left: Professor Dimos Dimarogonas (KTH), PhD student Pedro Roque (KTH) and PhD student Elias Krantz (KTH).

Slippery floor for the spacebots

The project team, along with master students, have built three small robots that they are calling spacebots, robots generally termed free-flyers. The lab has three main components to create a weightless-like environment for the spacebots. The first is the epoxy floor, which must be as smooth and level as possible so the three spacebots can move without friction (via levitation) and imitate microgravity motions.

The second component consists of support systems, mainly the motion capture system made by Qualisys, consisting of six cameras providing ground truth to the robots and compressors that allow for the uninterrupted operation of space robots. The third and final are the platforms:

“The compressed air thrusters mimic the thrusters you would see on a spacecraft: by releasing puffs of air in one direction, they make the spacebots move in another direction. On a spacecraft, they would not use compressed air but some other system, but that is not something we can use in this lab because it would be unsafe”, said Pedro Roque. 

“Right now, the spacebots are controlled remotely by the research team, but the goal of the project is to have all three of them moving around together autonomously in harmony”, said Elias Krantz, PhD student in the project.

“Our focus is on finding effective arguments for both environments – space and underwater. Additionally, we are enhancing hardware and facilities to a point where we can begin testing algorithms. This is our current status”, said Dimos Dimarogonas.

Spacebots in action. From left: PhD student Elias Krantz (KTH) and PhD student Pedro Roque (KTH).
Spacebots in action. From left: PhD student Elias Krantz (KTH) and PhD student Pedro Roque (KTH).

The underwater environments, where the robots would act in reality later on, would they be on Earth?

“For now, yes. But Earth is not the only underwater environment that space engineering is aiming for. Right now, we need to test on Earth, but being research, we will see where we can apply it”, Pedro Roque concludes.

NEST-project “DISCOWER - Unification of space and underwater workspaces through a multi-agent systems approach"

Project leaders

Dimos Dimarogonas, professor in automatic control; Ivan Stenius, associate professor in marine technology; Christer Fuglesang, professor in space travel and first Swedish astronaut; Jana Tumova, associate professor of robotics; all at KTH.

Project members

PhD students Elias Krantz, Pedro Roque, Joris Verhagen, David Dörner.


As part of the Astrobee project, NASA has three robots operating on the International Space Station. To have the same software in the lab at KTH as the one running the robots on the space station, the team at KTH interacts with the Intelligent Robotics Group, part of the Intelligent Systems Division, at NASA Ames.

This involves replicating both high-level (Astrobee Software Packages ) and low-level ( PX4-based Firmware ) components, allowing for comprehensive software testing before deployment. The low-level control manages tasks like battery monitoring and thruster commands, while the high-level component focuses on algorithmic control and planning. This integration enables simulation for testing mirroring real-world conditions.

NEST Environments

WASP, Wallenberg AI, Autonomous Systems and Software Program, supports nine multidisciplinary world-leading research environments and networks within AI, Autonomous Systems, and Software, characterised by Novelty, Excellence, Synergy, and Team, NEST.

Read more.

Photo and video credits: Nelly Sahlstrand, Linköping University

Text: Leila Zoubir, KTH

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Last changed: May 20, 2024