The future of human exploration has become even more high-tech with a “smart glove” that allows astronauts to operate drones and robotics with a flick of their fingers and a twist of their wrist.
Here’s the plan: NASA will land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024 with the Artemis program. After that, the astronauts are off to Mars. The smart gloves, developed by Ntention, will enable the team to communicate with machines to help them gather samples and explore their surroundings. Spacesuits are notoriously cumbersome, and NASA says that won’t change much soon, even as they become more comfortable.
"Astronauts need spacesuits that make it easy for them to interact with their environment, including performing complex and delicate tasks,” said Dr Greg Quinn, advanced spacesuit development lead at Collins Aerospace, in a statement. “The next generation suit will incorporate intelligent technologies that will take current capabilities to a new level."
The glove technology’s testing phase took place on Devon Island in the Arctic. Its Mars-like landscape has made it ideal testing grounds for more than two decades to perform investigations of planetary science technologies. It has been described by the Mars Institute as a “polar desert” – a barren, rocky region that’s one of the largest uninhabited islands on Earth.
"When I first saw Ntention’s smart glove in action, I immediately thought of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,'" recalled Lee. "A pressurized spacesuit is relatively rigid, and hand and finger motions meet with substantial resistance. In the 'Astronaut Smart Glove', the sensitivity of hand motions is adjustable and can be set high, which means the technology might be adaptable to a stiff pressurized spacesuit."
The uses of drones are many and varied: collect samples, assist in search and rescue, isolate samples from contamination, survey, map, scout, and fetch. The glove has a custom-designed microchip with sensors on the fingers and back of the hand that register movements over the x-, y- and z-axes.
The sensors, according to their site, incorporate an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and a magnetometer. The proof-of-concept registers the “yaw, pitch and roll of the hand” as well as how open or closed it is. By wearing Epson Moverio AR-glasses, the astronaut can receive video feedback from the drone in realtime.
"We believe that the technology we’re developing could represent a paradigm shift. Our system is much more intuitive than the rigid controller used in a lot of contexts. We’re able to incorporate more sensors and more data into our glove technology and scale it all up so that the glove becomes a finely tuned controller," said Frank Øygard, a product and development strategist at Ntention.
"Over time, we can include other types of sensors and build interaction systems that can handle increasingly complex tasks," he added.
Ntention’s site says that the glove can use Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy, and RF signals. Over time, they’d like to switch the typical human-machine narrative and make the machines more intuitive to humans, rather than vice versa.
"We call this the future interaction between humans and machines," said Øygard.
"We’re working to develop technology that lets machines understand humans, rather than humans being able to use and understand how machines work."
This means they intend to use artificial intelligence to take note of the user’s intention and then adapt to the human controller for a more intuitive experience.