Astronauts Are Testing How To Steer Robots on a Planet From Orbit
The European Space Agency has been hosting a series of robotic teleoperation experiments where an astronaut abroad on the ISS controls a robot back on the ground.
The European Space Agency has been hosting a series of robotic teleoperation experiments where an astronaut abroad on the ISS controls a robot back on the ground. We’ve previously reported on some of their successes. Now it’s time for the next round of experiments, with one individual astronaut on the ISS controlling four separate robots to perform a task back on Earth.
Performing work on Earth, which humans could easily do, might raise the question of why bother with robots at all. Quite simply, the Surface Avatar experiments, as they are known, are designed to serve as a proof of concept for operating a robot on the surface of a body that is not so friendly to humans. For example, the Lunar Gateway will theoretically begin operations around the Moon sometime this decade. Astronauts operating on the Gateway could then control robots down on the surface, performing operations like building landing pads and taking samples to be returned to Earth.
There are plenty of things for robotic explorers to do, many of which would be much faster with even a little bit of human oversight. Surface Avatar is meant to mimic those missions, including the delay operators would experience by attempting to operate the robots with up to an 800-millisecond delay.
That delay can be frustrating, especially when operating some of the more advanced robots in Surface Avatar’s lineup. The astronauts will be operating four different robots as part of the mission. Three are set up and ready to go at the German Space Operations Center in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany. They include a lander with a robotic arm to load samples (think Mars Sample Return mission), a humanoid robot named Rollin’ Justin, who is meant to mimic the operations of a human on the surface, and a robot dog named Bert. A fourth robot, which doesn’t yet have a name, is under construction at another location in the Netherlands. It will be a rover with two robotic arms.
It’s not clear yet what each of these robots will have to do as part of the experiment, though assumedly Bert just looking cute might be enough to justify its design. The ambiguity is intentional, though, as ESA doesn’t want the astronauts to know beforehand what they will be working on, making it more similar to an actual mission where there wouldn’t necessarily be time to prepare much in advance.
Past iterations of Surface Avatar experiments have had some preparation time, though. Experiments like Haptics-1 and the Interact Centaur mission proved different concepts that would be helpful for teleoperation, such as haptic feedback on joysticks and the possibility of placing objects in specific locations. Even some of the robots planned for the current mission have been tested in previous rounds – such as Justin and Bert. However, this is the first time all four will be controlled simultaneously.
To help with that control, ESA researchers have a 7-degree-of-freedom joystick with force feedback meant to mimic gravity and the effect of pushing on objects. It should allow astronauts to control all four robots to the full extent of their capability.
They won’t have much time to prepare, even with their limited knowledge of the controls and the experiment’s goals. An unnamed astronaut currently residing on the space station will start performing some of the tasks for the Surface Avatar experiments sometime this summer. Another astronaut who has completed some of the previous Surface Avatar experiments, Andreas Mogensen, will help complete the work in early 2024 when he returns to the ISS. Both experiments will serve as another step for humans into the broader coordination with robots that will be a core part of our solar system exploration.