Building on 40 years at the forefront of small satellite engineering, the University of Surrey is leading a new multi-million pound hub which will develop AI and robotics that could change the face of future space missions.

Space is a hazardous environment for humans, with extreme temperatures, radiation and other dangers making exploration highly problematic. Aimed at providing solutions to these technical challenges, the Future AI and Robotics for Space (FAIR-SPACE) Hub will develop space robots that can act as ‘proxies’ for humans, performing complex tasks with minimal dependency on a human ground crew.

Launched in November 2017, FAIR-SPACE is being funded through a £6.9m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the UK Space Agency (UKSA), boosted by a further £7.5m from the space sector and £15m from a business development fund. The Hub will see the University of Surrey working with Imperial College London and the Universities of Edinburgh, Liverpool, Salford and Warwick, in addition to partners from government and industry including Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space UK Ltd.

“Airbus Defence and Space has enjoyed a long and successful partnership in space research with the University of Surrey” said Matt Perren, Head of Future Programmes at Airbus. “This relationship relies on the open sharing of innovative concepts, a good understanding of industry needs and excellence in research project execution. I am confident that this working mode will deliver again with our other partners within the FAIR-SPACE Hub.”

Surrey draws on four decades of experience to lead the Hub. Home to the Surrey Space Centre, the University pioneered the small satellite industry in the 1970s, launching the world’s first university microsatellite to demonstrate commercial ‘off-theshelf’ technologies. More recently, its STAR (Surrey Technology for Autonomous systems and Robotics) Lab has contributed to ground breaking missions including MoonLITE, Moonraker, Proba-3 and ExoMars 2020.

“FAIR-SPACE is an incredible opportunity for the University and the whole country to play a pivotal role in how humankind explores space, our moon and beyond.” Professor Yang Gao, University of Surrey Associate Dean, Professor of Space Autonomous Systems and Hub Director of FAIR-SPACE

The FAIR-SPACE Hub will focus on three areas of research: developing robots that can performing tasks such as repairing satellites, assembling large space telescopes and removing space debris; creating planetary vehicles which can survey, extract resources and prepare for human habitation on alien planets; and investigating interoperability between astronauts and robots, for example through wearable technologies. Work is already underway in each of these areas, with the first prototypes due to be developed by mid-2019.

FAIR-SPACE directly addresses two key priorities in the government’s recent Industrial Strategy Green Paper: robotics and artificial intelligence, and satellite/ space technologies. In addition to offering significant market opportunities within the UK space industry, these technologies have applications in other sectors where there is a need to navigate a hostile or challenging environment – such as nuclear, off-shore, mining, healthcare and agriculture. Using roboticsbased products and services in these industries is expected to deliver economic benefits of at least $1.9 trillion globally by 2025.


This article first appeared in the 2018 State of the Relationship report, commissioned by Research England and compiled and published by NCUB.