There is the cornerstone of moon-focused commercial space initiatives, with established companies and upstarts both looking to turn that cold, gray rock into a thriving hub for scientific and industrial activities. But that future may not be possible without a set of robotic helpers.
Tokyo-based startup gitai that autonomous robots, rather than human labor, can and should be used to make this vision a reality. The company thinks the robot could be used for a variety of activities in space – from assembly and inspection to routine maintenance. To that end, the company has developed a robotic arm and a robotic rover for applications in space.
Its technology has attracted continued interest from investors, with the company today announcing that it has closed $30 million (4 billion yen) in a Series B expansion round from funds and Japanese venture company. Those funds include Global Brain CVC Fund, DCI Venture Growth Fund, Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, ANRI III Investment Partnership Limited, ANRI Appendix I Investment Partnership Limited -II-III, No.1 NVC Limited Liability Partnership, JIC Fund 2 Investment Limited Partnership, Electric Power Development Company, and Mitsubishi UFJ Capital IX Limited Partnership.
Gitai is planning to direct all new funding towards building a US-based workforce and expanding US manufacturing and testing capacity. It’s a sign of how seriously the startup is taking its US operations.
“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, have also moved to the U.S. Gitai has stopped hiring in Japan and will open instead expand the number of employees in the United States to 20 by the end of this year, and 40 to 50 by the end of next year.
The company is in the process of building test facilities for its robots, including a dummy lunar environment and a vacuum chamber.
The ultimate goal is to enhance technology readiness – a measurement system used by NASA and other government programs to assess the maturity of any particular technology – of two their core robotics product. The robotic arm spent time in space, when the company conducted a technology demonstration with it aboard the International Space Station in 2021. Gitai is currently gearing up for a second tech demo of the robotic arm next year – which will take place outside the ISS, a considerably more difficult endeavor – and hopes to get a rover to the moon as early as 2026.
These are huge strides for the seven-year-old startup, especially considering that the company’s original goal wasn’t 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 am looking for more affordable and practical opportunities,” he said.
But he quickly realized that robots on Earth had to overcome a major market challenge: human labor. “It is very difficult for robots to surpass human labor, especially in terms of cost,” he explains.
On the other hand, the space industry offers unique opportunities for robot developers. Currently, robotic arms attached to the ISS are very expensive – the multi-stage program to develop a third-generation “Canadaarm” robotic arm to be mounted outside the ISS is worth $1.2 billion. But astronaut labor isn’t the answer either: it’s still expensive and dangerous to send a person into space, let alone send them out to conduct extracurricular activities outside of the station.
Private companies developing private space stations – including Vast, Blue Origin, Voyager Space and Axiom Space – will also likely seek cheaper alternatives to the old robotics on the ISS. Gitai can fill this impending market demand with its robotic arm.
“While SpaceX and Blue Origin are reducing the cost of transportation to space 100 times, we at Gitai are taking on the challenge of reducing labor costs 100 times,” said Nakanose. “We will provide the most labor for the moon and Mars, and build infrastructure such as solar panels, communication antennas, fuel generators and habitation modules.”