In November 2020, a SpaceX craft delivered a crew including Japanese astronaut Noguchi Soichi to the International Space Station (ISS), marking the first ISS mission under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Private companies have been opening up the frontiers of space development in recent years and building momentum toward establishing a human presence on the Moon and Mars. Already worth $350 billion, the global space industry could generate revenue of more than $1 trillion in 2040, according to Morgan Stanley. Japanese startups are helping power this growth by supplying two essential tools for space development: robots and satellites.
Robot workers in orbit
Japan has long held a dominant position in robotics development and was the world’s leading supplier of industrial robots in 2017, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Drawing upon this pool of talent and technology, GITAI is a Tokyo space startup that sees a massive need for robots to help develop the rapidly growing space industry.
One focus is servicing satellites that are already in orbit. GITAI is developing robots that will repair satellites or provide them with new batteries or hardware upgrades to extend their life and functions. The company also wants to use robots to assist astronauts in construction and maintenance of space outposts, either in orbit or on the Moon. For example, the G1 is a two-armed, 120-kg robot that is designed to be a general-purpose helper. It has autonomous abilities but can be remotely operated via GITAI’s H1 telepresence control system. The G1 can operate tools and switches and conduct scientific experiments. It’s expected to supplement human labor in the harsh environment of space.
“I’m a fan of science fiction, and I believe there will be space colonies with labor shortages,” says Nakanose Sho, CEO of GITAI. “Other automated vehicles have been built to transport people, but there will be a need for handy robots that can do useful work in space.”
After selling another firm he had founded, Nakanose began work on a robot prototype and established GITAI in 2016. He was joined by Nakanishi Yuto, founder and CEO of the bipedal robot startup SCHAFT, which Google acquired in 2013. GITAI has gained a number of major clients in the space industry including the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and commercial space businesses.
As part of a research agreement with JAXA, GITAI staged an experiment in which one of its remote-operated, two-armed robots attempted to perform astronaut tasks in a mockup of the ISS Japanese Experiment Module (Kibo). GITAI was later selected to deploy S1, a robotic arm with a 1-meter reach, to the station in 2021. It will be fitted onto Bishop, an airlock developed by U.S. firm Nanoracks that will be the first commercial cargo gateway for the ISS.
“One of our strengths as a company is how we use motor-drive control to provide the proper force for robots working in zero gravity,” says Nakanishi, GITAI’s chief robotics officer. “In addition, our robots are a successful integration of hardware and software, including motion planning for the arms, as well as the choice of electronic circuits and sensors. All these elements contribute to the robot’s performance. So the challenge is technology integration and the need to repeatedly test and improve the product.”
To further develop the capabilities of its robots and to expand its business, GITAI has just closed a $17.1 million funding round, its biggest to date and bringing its total funding to $22.5 million. After deploying to the ISS, the company has its eyes on operating robots outside the station, and then on the surface of the Moon, possibly in the form of a rover or machines that will help build a colony.
“Robots can help people live in space by building homes and even mining mineral resources,” says Nakanose. “We want people to focus on what they are good at while robots do what they are good at. It’s a way of sharing the work.”
Putting eyes in the sky
While conglomerates have dominated the aerospace industry in Japan, a growing number of startups are entering the field. Aside from GITAI, another is Axelspace, a Tokyo startup working to create opportunities in space for commercial development.
Axelspace is a microsatellite business founded in 2008 whose clients include JAXA and Weathernews, a Japanese forecasting company. Founder and CEO Nakamura Yuya established the company after working on CubeSats, small satellites weighing no more than 1.3 kg, at the University of Tokyo. Axelspace specialized in producing satellites at low cost, and Nakamura used to go to the Akihabara electronics district of Tokyo to buy parts. The business is now manufacturing satellites in the 100-kg category for customers in Japan and overseas. It’s also deploying its own AxelGlobe constellation of satellites through which it will provide services such as satellite imagery as well as data consulting.
“We have a long experience of developing microsatellites from our university days, something that sets us apart from other space startups coming from space agencies or large companies,” says Nakamura. “Another unique point is that we’re highly vertically integrated. We’re a one-stop shop offering everything from satellite manufacturing to data analysis.”
Since the cost of launching a microsatellite is much lower than conventional satellites, the technology is allowing smaller companies and even regional governments to have eyes in the sky. Axelspace believes this is increasing demand for high-frequency satellite monitoring in areas such as agriculture, forestry, and economic trends indicated by shipping.
“Data provided by satellite monitoring is meaningless unless it’s usable,” says Yamazaki Yasunori, chief business officer at Axelspace. “We provide actionable data because our 100-kg satellites can carry meaningful instruments such as sensors that capture specific optical bands that are powerful tools in vegetation surveys.”
To support the expansion of its business, Axelspace has raised about $50 million from venture capital companies and other investors in Japan. It’s collaborating with partners such as universities and research centers as well as clients in South America, Southeast Asia and other regions of the world. The focus for now is an upcoming launch of four satellites that will build up its AxelGlobe constellation.
“This will help provide actionable intelligence and a strong tool for decision-making,” says Nakamura. “It will become much easier for clients to get and use satellite images. Our goal is to disseminate the value of space to a wide range of people and clients.”
Note: All Japanese names in this article are given in the traditional Japanese order, with surname first.
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