ESA astronaut successfully drives rover from low-Earth orbit
ESA astronaut AndreasMogensen has successfully driven and manipulated an Earth-based roverwhilst orbiting at a height of 400 km (249 miles) aboard theInternational Space Station (ISS). The control system used asophisticated form of force-feedback that allowed Mogensen todetermine when the rover's robotic arm met resistance. The technologyhas the potential to be used in a number of roles both in space andback on Earth, possibly taking human workers out of harms way.
The Interact Centaurrover used for the experiment was designed and constructed as part ofa collaboration between ESA engineers and graduate students from theDelft University of Technology, in the Netherlands. The rover sports a4 X 4 design, a camera "head" and two highly-dexterousrobotic arms equipped with force-feedback sensors with which tomanipulate the target object. The rover is also equipped with a hostof proximity sensors and an arm laser to aid with depth perception
The test, which tookplace on Sept. 7 at the agency's Telerobotics and Haptics Laboratory in theNetherlands, saw the rover make two approaches to a task board,retrieve a metal peg and insert it into a round hole with only only asixth of a millimeter of clearance in order to complete an electricalconnection.
"He had neveroperated the rover before but its controls turned out to be veryintuitive" states André Schiele, of ESA’s Telerobotics andHaptics Laboratory. "Andreas took 45 minutes to reach the taskboard and then insert the pin on his first attempt, and less than 10minutes on his follow-up attempt, showing a very steep learningcurve."
In order for theforce-feedback to be a success, sophisticated software had to be usedto combat a time lag of nearly a second, placing pilot and rover inperfect sync in spite of the signal having to navigate a convoluted144,000-km (89,477-mile) journey.
Whilst this may seemlike a minor achievement on first glance, the accuracy of theforce-feedback control system could be the first step down a roadthat could see astronauts orbiting Mars taking direct control ofrovers on the surface of the Red Planet. ESA also envisions using thetechnology as a part of its effort to clean up low Earth orbit, andeven aid in the construction of installations on the Moon, but itsapplications need not be limited to space.
Force-feedback and thehigher level of control it offers could one day allow rovers toreplace human workers in dangerous environments, representing yetanother benefit to mankind derived from space exploration.