ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen has successfully driven and manipulated an Earth-based rover whilst orbiting at a height of 400 km (249 miles) aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The control system used a sophisticated form of force-feedback that allowed Mogensen to determine when the rover's robotic arm met resistance. The technology has the potential to be used in a number of roles both in space and back on Earth, possibly taking human workers out of harms way.
The Interact Centaur rover used for the experiment was designed and constructed as part of a collaboration between ESA engineers and graduate students from the Delft University of Technology, in the Netherlands. The rover sports a 4 X 4 design, a camera "head" and two highly-dexterous robotic arms equipped with force-feedback sensors with which to manipulate the target object. The rover is also equipped with a host of proximity sensors and an arm laser to aid with depth perception
The test, which took place on Sept. 7 at the agency's Telerobotics and Haptics Laboratory in the Netherlands, saw the rover make two approaches to a task board, retrieve a metal peg and insert it into a round hole with only only a sixth of a millimeter of clearance in order to complete an electrical connection.
"He had never operated the rover before but its controls turned out to be very intuitive" states André Schiele, of ESA’s Telerobotics and Haptics Laboratory. "Andreas took 45 minutes to reach the task board and then insert the pin on his first attempt, and less than 10 minutes on his follow-up attempt, showing a very steep learning curve."
In order for the force-feedback to be a success, sophisticated software had to be used to combat a time lag of nearly a second, placing pilot and rover in perfect sync in spite of the signal having to navigate a convoluted 144,000-km (89,477-mile) journey.
Whilst this may seem like a minor achievement on first glance, the accuracy of the force-feedback control system could be the first step down a road that could see astronauts orbiting Mars taking direct control of rovers on the surface of the Red Planet. ESA also envisions using the technology as a part of its effort to clean up low Earth orbit, and even aid in the construction of installations on the Moon, but its applications need not be limited to space.
Force-feedback and the higher level of control it offers could one day allow rovers to replace human workers in dangerous environments, representing yet another benefit to mankind derived from space exploration.