THERE a groundswell of space commercial initiatives focused on the moon, with established companies and newer startups all seeking to transform the cold, gray rock into a thriving hub for in scientific and industrial activity. But that future may be impossible without a set of robotic assistants.
Tokyo-based startup Gitai thinks that autonomous robots, instead of human labor, can and should be used to make this vision a reality. The company thinks that robots can be used for many activities in space – from assembly to inspection to performing routine maintenance. To that end, the company has developed a robotic arm and a robotic rover for space applications.
Its technology has attracted continued interest from investors, with the company announcing today that it has closed $30 million (4 billion yen) in a Series B extension round from Japanese funds and venture firms. Those include Global Brain CVC Funds, DCI Venture Growth Fund, the Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, Ltd, ANRI III Investment Limited Partnership, ANRI I-II-III Annex Investment Limited Partnership, NVC No. 1 Limited Liability Partnership, JIC Venture Growth Fund 2 Investment Limited Partnership, Electric Power Development Company, and Mitsubishi UFJ Capital IX Limited Partnership.
Gitai plans to direct all of the new funding to building a US-based workforce and expanding manufacturing and testing capacity in the US. It’s a sign of how seriously the startup is taking operations in America.
“We will invest in the US,” Gitai CEO Sho Nakanose said in a recent interview. Nakanose, who recently moved to the Los Angeles area, said more than half of the Japanese workforce, including engineers, has also moved to the U.S. Gitai has stopped hiring in Japan and will instead expand its U.S. headcount in 20 at the end. this year, and 40-50 by the end of next year.
The company is in the process of building test facilities for its robotics, including a mock lunar environment and a vacuum chamber.
The ultimate goal is to improve the level of technology readiness — a measurement system used by NASA and other government programs to determine the maturity of any given technology — in two primary products. of the robot. The robotic arm has already spent time in space, when the company held a technology demonstration of it on the International Space Station in 2021. Gitai is now preparing for a second tech demo of the robotic arm next year – which will take place outside the ISS, an extremely difficult endeavor – and hopes to send the rover to the moon as early as 2026.
These are big steps for a seven-year-old startup, especially considering that the company’s initial goal was not necessarily to go into the space market. Nakanose explained in a recent interview that when he founded the company, the space industry was the last market on his list. “I’m looking for better, practical opportunities,” he said.
But he quickly realized that Earth-based robots would have to overcome a major market challenge: human labor. “It’s very difficult for robot capacity to overcome human labor, especially in terms of cost,” he explained.
The space industry, on the other hand, presents unique opportunities for robotics developers. Currently, robotic arms attached to the ISS are expensive – the multi-phase program to build the third-gen “Canadarm” robotic arm attached to the outside of the ISS cost $1.2 billion. But astronaut labor isn’t the answer either: it’s still too expensive, and dangerous, to send someone into space, let alone send them to perform extravehicular activities outside the station.
Private companies developing private space stations – which include Vast, Blue Origin, Voyager Space and Axiom Space – are also likely to seek cheaper alternatives to the ISS’s legacy robotics. Gitai can fill this future market demand with its robotic arm.
“While SpaceX and Blue Origin have reduced the cost of transportation to space by 100 times, we at Gitai are facing the challenge of reducing labor costs by 100 times,” said Nakanose. “We will provide the most jobs for the moon and Mars and build infrastructure such as solar panels, communication antennas, fuel generators and habitat modules.”