An astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS) has successfully controlled a robot back here on lowly planet Earth, a technique known as telerobotics. The experiment is important because we may use a similar technique to explore worlds beyond Earth – such as Mars – in the future.
In this experiment, ESA’s Andreas Mogensen – Denmark’s first astronaut – was using a force-feedback control system on the ISS to manipulate a rover at ESA’s ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. The four-wheeled rover, called Interact Centaur, has two arms and a video camera for an “eye” so that Mogensen could “see.”
Using the controller system, Mogensen was able to move the robot around, and could “feel” when the robot’s arm met resistance thanks to the tactile force-feedback. Mogensen’s goal was to place a metal peg into a round board, with less than a sixth of a millimeter for error, in order to make an electric connection. He was successful, despite having never used the rover before.
The video shows Mogensen controlling the rover. ESA.
On his first attempt it took him 45 minutes to complete, but on a second go he did it in just 10 minutes – showing that the system is incredibly easy to learn.
Simulating proper force-feedback was the real breakthrough here, despite the huge distances involved. There was a time delay of about one second between Mogensen and the rover, but sophisticated software kept it and astronaut in sync.
“We are very happy with today’s results,” said André Schiele, who is leading the experiment and ESA’s Telerobotics and Haptics Laboratory, in a statement. “Andreas managed two complete drive, approach, park and peg-in-hole insertions, demonstrating precision force-feedback from orbit for the very first time in the history of spaceflight.”
The rover is seen here inserting the peg. ESA.
In the future, astronauts on the Moon could use telerobotics to explore the surface while they remain in a habitat. With regards to Mars, astronauts could orbit the Red Planet – possibly on the Martian moon Phobos – and control a rover on the surface in real-time. This would allow much greater scientific operations to be carried out on the surface than possible with current rovers. These, such as Curiosity, make slow progress as the time delay can be in the tens of minutes, so commands must be sent up and carried out in small increments.
This experiment, therefore, represents a significant step forward in telerobotics. Mogensen himself will be returning to Earth this Saturday September 12, having arrived last Friday September 4.