Robotic Assistants Could Have Helped Columbia
February 10, 2003 | Source: SPACE.com
If Columbia’s tiles or wing section were damaged on liftoff, that fear could have been allayed by in-flight robotic inspection.
The AERCam-SPRINT (Autonomous Extra-vehicular Robotic Camera) flew on STS-87 in 1997. It is a small, hand-deployed and captured remote controled inspection tool that carries its own avionics and nitrogen-gas propulsion. Feasibility studies have been done by NASA to fly AERCam underneath the vehicle to image tiles.
In the future, a device like AERCam could do tile repair in orbit. NASA has also investigated other robots more sophisticated than AERCam.