Engineers to develop robot maintenance crews in space

SmartSat is backing the University of Sydney with $2.3 million to research and develop robotic maintenance of satellites while in orbit in a step to extend the lifespan of vital space infrastructure.

Dr Xiaofeng Wu and Mr Julian Guinane with a robotic arm. Image: Luisa Low, University of Sydney

The new project will develop robotic satellite technologies to reliably connect with other satellites to perform in-orbit repairs and maintenance. It will be led by the University of Sydney and is supported by SmartSat CRC and NSW-based industry partners Abyss Solutions, ANT61, Space Machines Company, Sperospace and Spiral Blue.

Servicing satellites in orbit is challenging due to harsh space conditions, potential risk of damaging expensive assets through collision during docking, and difficulties maintaining stability during maintenance.

Leading the project is Dr Xiaofeng Wu, Senior Lecturer in Space Engineering in the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering. He said developing foundational Australian ISAM capabilities will help meet Australia’s future sovereign needs and equip local companies with advanced technologies, providing them with advantages in the global ISAM and broader space industry.

“Australia needs to start laying the groundwork now to compete in this vital and emerging $US14.3 billion market. The University of Sydney is ideally positioned to play a leading role in establishing the country’s first integrated set of core capabilities for autonomous orbital robotics. This core capability set will enable Australian industry to undertake advanced, fit-for-purpose, autonomous robotic satellite missions to meet commercial, civil and defence needs,” Dr Wu said.

SmartSat CRC Chief Executive Officer Professor Andy Koronios said research into ISAM technologies is critical for Australia to help our local industry join the emerging global supply chain in this increasingly important field.

“With the number of satellites and spacecraft in orbit increasing rapidly, there’s a greater likelihood of malfunctions and collisions. Being able to service and upgrade satellites in-situ, thereby extending their lifespans, will be a crucial capability for governments and the private sector alike,” Professor Koronios said

This project brings together four technology areas into one research project, ensuring an end-to-end approach to address complex challenges facing in-orbit repair and satellite maintenance.

Dr Xiaofeng Wu and Mr Julian Guinane. Image: Luisa Low, University of Sydney

The ISAM project will address:

  • High-level, AI-driven onboard automation for mission operations, ensuring real-time performance in harsh space conditions.
  • Advanced sensing to detect far-away objects and aid navigation in challenging lighting
  • Fault-tolerant navigation systems for accurate detection and tracking in a variety of space environments and small objects, while using limited hardware and computational resources.
  • Safe control strategy to stabilise the servicing satellite while the robotic manipulator is in operation, avoiding damage to spacecraft

The project’s aim is to build end-to-end software technology and demonstrate it on the ground, with the aim of deploying it on future satellites.


The University will receive $1.05million from SmartSat. The remaining amount is an in-kind contribution from the University of Sydney and the project’s industry partners, which will work with the University to integrate their technologies and demonstrate the feasibility of a future all-Australian satellite servicing mission.


Specialising in AI-based perception, Abyss Solutions focuses on autonomous inspections in challenging energy and marine environments – such as off-shore oil rigs; ANT61 works in semi-autonomous control of dexterous robotic systems; Space Machines works in spacecraft transportation and servicing; Sperospace works in cold welding and large robotic manipulators; and Spiral Blue specialises in edge computing hardware and application management software.

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