Creative Engineering: Designing an Autonomous Bipedal Humanoid for Space

by Grace Brown

Grace Brown currently works as the Humanoid Project Lead with the Melbourne Space Program. Prior to this, she worked within the Rover Project as a software engineer.

Growing up, I knew that a career in STEM was the right fit for me. At the age of five, my dream job would have been a 'fairy-mermaid-princess-mathematician' because I was curious about so many things. Throughout high school, I enjoyed maths and physics and was able to take an engineering design subject that centred on foundational engineering concepts and programming. I loved this subject, and with a team, I had the opportunity to develop a 3-degree-of-freedom hydraulic arm that would pick up a target mass and then move it onto another block. The realistic approach, without over-engineering, was really appealing. I did well in this subject, and this practical experience cemented in my mind that engineering is what I wanted to do as a job. Currently, I am in the final year of my Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne where I am majoring in Mechatronics, Robotics, and Automation and intend to go into the industry after pursuing a master's degree.

I joined the Melbourne Space Program (MSP) during the second year of my bachelor's degree. I instantly fell in love with the work and was introduced to numerous space-related organisations across Australia. Joining MSP rekindled my innate curiosity and passion for space exploration. Through my university and extracurricular activities with space and robotic technology, I have learned that with the resources we have today, much of the scientific technologies we imagine as 'fiction' are not only possible to develop, but already exist in the world. It is hard to pinpoint my favourite thing about the Melbourne Space Program, but working with exciting and talented people across disciplines continues to inspire me. I've met passionate, driven, and ambitious people who are also incredibly fun, kind, and supportive.

My work experience at the Melbourne Space Program also helped me secure internships in Australia's space industry. Over the summer of my second year of studies, I interned at Skykraft, a space-technology company specialising in conceptualising, designing, and manufacturing CubeSat constellations. Throughout this internship, I learned a lot about control theory and programming electronic hardware for satellite technology. My main task was to develop a prototype reaction wheel used to stabilise the CubeSat in orbit. I found that this experience pushed my technical engineering knowledge for space technology onto another level, and I could really begin to appreciate the theory taught in the classroom. Throughout my second internship, I worked with a team to develop high altitude ballooning technologies for earth observation from the stratosphere. Through my work experience in this team, I explored the use of radio devices and other long-range communication protocols for the live tracking system of each flight.

I don't feel like I could call myself an engineer without a project. I realised that the ecosystem at the Melbourne Space Program, in terms of its network of mentors and the large pool of applicants each year, was the perfect environment to start my own project and build a team. For my whole life, I have been working on personal engineering projects, including building my own electric skateboard, assembling mini-rovers, and putting together my own 3D printer. Within Melbourne Space Program, I identified that we had the reputation and connections to build the right team for something more sophisticated. With guidance from academics, mentors, and industry professionals, I led the creation of our Humanoid Project.

Creating a humanoid robot first came to me when my housemates moved out in the COVID-19 pandemic. I think an engineer on their own will naturally come up with a project to keep busy, which is exactly how Abi was devised (ABI: Autonomous Bipedal). My inspiration was Baymax, from the film Big Hero Six, and like Baymax, I wanted to give Abi personality. I recognised that developing the control algorithms for stable and fluid bipedal motion is a huge technical challenge, along with the philosophical aspect of using electronic and mechanical hardware to express personality. However, with our growing team and the support from industry and academic mentors, we pursued the project. The need for Humanoid robots in space is clear, and so it has been a relevant and engaging project to lead. Although I previously worked in the Rover Project, I enjoy working on Abi more because I have more creative control. We will have Abi's first prototype in March - an autonomous bipedal humanoid who can give hugs on command. Abi will have computer vision for object classification and facial recognition capabilities, integrated SLAM navigational algorithms for obstacle avoidance and environmental mapping, and high-level speech capabilities for a more personalised experience for those who interact with her. In a space setting, a robot-like Abi could work both inside and outside a spacecraft. She could undertake spacewalks or any tasks deemed too dangerous for astronauts and pilots. She could also assist astronauts on the Moon or Mars. The implications of this are endless

Photos of the work-in-progress

As a woman in STEM, I have also experienced male-dominated workplace environments, so I'm eager to work with more women in the future. I think that the culture is shifting; however, my classrooms as an engineering student are primarily filled with men. I hope that as my generation fills more senior roles, a gender balance will be seen in the sector. For the space sector to be more inclusive, I think a lot of this comes down to the leadership and policies of each organisation. Leaders in space-related industries should be informed and educated to a necessary standard on topics around the social sciences. These organisations should also ensure the rules and policies of their company are fair and equitable for all members.

In the future, I hope to pursue a career in space technology and robotics. Australia's reputation in the space sector faces a challenge when it comes to resources. We have the intellect, but funding is an obstacle. I am excited to be entering this industry in my generation. I believe that we now have such exciting opportunities to develop technologies that can push the bounds of humanity like never before, and I'm really excited to play a part in this.

Speaking from personal experience, the most I've gained throughout university, in terms of learning and growth, has come outside of the classroom. Immersing myself in technical student-engineering projects, I've really been able to apply my learnings in a practical sense, bridge gaps in my skillset and take on a great deal of responsibility I'd not otherwise experience from my degree alone. It's a safe place to learn to collaborate with a diverse group of people, make mistakes and forge strong friendships and connections. I'd encourage other students or young professionals wanting to enter the space industry to push themselves out of their comfort zone and get this exposure early on (which also lends itself quite nicely to an industry placement afterwards).

When you do get those first industry experiences, it's common to doubt yourself and feel a great deal of imposter syndrome. Prior to my first two internships, I was anxious and overwhelmed by my own perceived "lack of experience". I'd encourage you (and my former self) to have more confidence in your skills and your ability to learn.

On a more practical level, I found that asking my supervisor for some topics that I could look into before commencing each new role often helped to ease my nerves and build my self-confidence before day one.

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