Peratech role in exploring the final frontier

A ROBONAUT is a dexterous humanoid robot built and designed at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Whenever the Robonaut uses its hands to carry out complex jobs in space, it relies on technology fine-tuned by experts from a Yorkshire market town.

According to David Lussey, the founder and chief technical officer at Peratech, our region’s unexpected link with space exploration started with a phone call 10 years ago.

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“NASA rang us up and said, ‘Hello Peratech. This is NASA. We have a problem’,” Mr Lussey recalled.

NASA had heard of Peratech’s skills in ‘touch technology’ and wanted help with a complex project.

A decade later, Peratech has been presented with a Tech Brief Award by NASA in recognition for its work in providing fingertip sensitivity for the Robonaut, a human shaped robot with a metal torso and two arms and hands, which gives it the versatility to perform tasks in space.

The project stems from Peratech’s skills in devising Quantum Tunnelling Composite technology (QTC).

QTC materials give enormous flexibility in the design, shape, thickness and style of a switch or pressure sensor and can be made in a range of forms, including coatings and inks.

Mr Lussey said: “The Robonaut was designed to be deployed in space missions.

“NASA chose our Quantum Tunnelling Composite technology for the robotic finger sensors because it provided really sensitive feedback – as good as a human hand – and was tough enough to withstand the rigours of space.

“Our QTC sensors enabled the Robonaut to work out how hard it was gripping something and where the fingers were gripping it.

“The sensors worked so well that NASA has given us an award.”

Mr Lussey said NASA had contacted Peratech, which is based in Richmond, North Yorkshire, after the space agency discovered that the company had created a material that was very sensitive to all sorts of stimuli.

“We were becoming well known for our ability to solve very unusual problems,’’ Mr Lussey said.

Mr Lussey said robots were needed for deep space travel which mankind couldn’t consider.

He added: “They believe a humanoid is the best shape. It certainly gave us a profile. Everybody wants to work with NASA, and we did.”

QTC material is pressure sensitive and changes its electrical resistance when a force is applied.

Tiny conductive particles within the composite material are brought closer together, when a force is applied and this enables a current to flow because electrons leap from one particle to the next using an effect called quantum tunnelling. No physical contact occurs between the particles.

By adjusting the formulation and manufacture of the QTC material, it can be made with whatever level of responsiveness is required. As there is no air gap within the sensor, it is not affected by being in the vacuum of space.

The composite material was also selected so that changes in temperature did not cause it to swell and contract which would have created false readings.

The sensors were designed with no start resistance so that without pressure, the sensors draw no power and pass no current, which is important as power is at a premium in space.

Mr Lussey added: “Because our switches are solid state and so robust, we are also supplying to the many other robot projects and major industrial partners for their next generation of products. There is nothing to wear out, no air gap that can be contaminated by dust or sand or liquids..something that NASA appreciated as service calls in space are expensive.”

The precise value of the NASA contract is confidential. Peratech has around 25 staff and a turnover of £3m.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that Peratech was planning to build new laboratory facilities after securing a £1.2m investment from Finance Yorkshire’s Equity Linked Fund.

The mezzanine deal with Finance Yorkshire is a loan investment agreement with a small equity-linked exit bonus.

Chief financial and operations officer Doug Balderston said in July: “We are in a strong position in that we don’t need the money now as we’re capable of organic growth through the customers and contracts we currently have.

“But the technology sector grows very fast so leaving it to organic growth alone puts us at a disadvantage because we risk being left behind by competitors.

“At the moment, we don’t have any competitors, but that’s not to say we won’t have in the future.”

Rise of the machines

A ROBONAUT is a dexterous humanoid robot built and designed at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Its development is part of NASA’s strategy to build machines that can help humans work and explore in space.

Working side by side with humans, or going where the risks are too great for human explorers, Robonauts will be used for building and discovery work.

A statement on the official Robonaut website says: “Robonauts are essential to NASA’s future as we go beyond low earth orbit and continue to explore the vast wonder that is space.”

Robonaut 2 is currently deployed on the International Space Station.