The Lightweight Surface Manipulation System (LSMS) is a lightweight robotic crane comprised of a structurally efficient truss frame with cable actuation that mimics the movement of a human arm but with a much longer reach. It is scalable to fit any sized lander, vehicle, or surface application and can use a toolbox of quick-interchange end-effectors, or tools, that allow it to act as a hoist, forklift, regolith scoop, welder, and more.

The LSMS was first designed, built, and tested at Langley more than a decade ago to demonstrate the concept for offloading large payloads, such as habitats and rovers, from landers on human exploration missions.

Upgrades to LSMS since its initial development include a suite of new tools such as a bucket truck end-effector for digging and maneuvering regolith, a forklift tine tool for lifting cargo pallets, and a welding tool — in addition to greater autonomous functionality. Now, the team is working to design, build, and test a proto-flight, or flight-like, version that could be demonstrated on a large cargo lunar lander.

As NASA establishes a sustainable presence on the Moon under the Artemis missions, it needs to start setting up multiple elements and there will be a wide range of tasks that could leverage the versatility and functionality of the LSMS.

The new LSMS will be similar in size to the original prototype with about a 25-foot reach and will be able to lift payloads weighing around one metric ton on the Moon — equal to approximately 2,200 pounds or the size of an elephant. Upcoming Artemis missions carrying science instruments, technology demonstrations, and rovers will be in that payload size range.

The LSMS hardware will be space-rated and ready for further development that could make it compatible with one or more of the landers that is selected to go to the Moon. A follow-on project would develop the additional mechanical and electrical interfacing and software needed to integrate it with a lander.

Eventually, the goal is to demonstrate the technology at a range of sizes that could interface with the smaller commercial robotic landers up to larger landers. Analysis tools are being developed under the project so that different size variants of LSMS can be developed fairly quickly for different missions. LSMS is designed to operate on the Moon, Mars, or any kind of planetary body.

The team started looking at creating a smaller version of the LSMS for the smaller robotic landing missions that would precede a human mission. The mini-LSMS has about a six-foot reach and could add a similar set of capabilities for offloading and other tasks to the landers and could demonstrate the LSMS technology on the lunar surface at a smaller scale.

There are some unique capabilities that could be provided with that particular version such as charging a rover. The rover could be offloaded with the mini-LSMS and the rover could perform a mission and return. Because the LSMS has a power connection at the tip, the rover could be recharged, enabling it to complete another mission.

If LSMS could be mounted on a rover, it could act as a mobile tool for digging and regolith operations or to lift cargo off of a lander. Using a mobile LSMS removes the need to land an offloading device on every mission, which is a weight and cost savings.

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Motion Design Magazine

This article first appeared in the April, 2021 issue of Motion Design Magazine.

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