Driving a robot from Space Station The Justin mobile robotic system, developed at the German AerospaceCenter, DLR, with its compliant controlled lightweight arms and its twofour-fingered hands, is an ideal experimental platform. The mobile platform allows the long-range autonomous operation of the system. The independent wheels respond to the requirements of Justin's upper body during manipulation tasks. Sensors and cameras allow the 3D reconstruction of the robot's environment, enabling Justin to perform his work autonomously. Image:
To help turn robotics and telepresence into a standard tool for space missions, ESA is linking the Space Station and Earth for remotely controlling terrestrial robotic experiments from the orbital outpost.
"The Space Station is the perfect orbital platform to simulate very realistic scenarios for human exploration," says Kim Nergaard, ESA's Meteron coordinator.
"First we have to set up a robust communication architecture, establish an operations system and define a protocol to allow astronauts, robots and our ESA control centre to work efficiently together. This is not as easy a task as it seems."
"The multitude of submissions shows the strength of the idea," comments Philippe Schoonejans, ESA's Head of Robotics in the Human Spaceflight and Operations directorate.
"Meteron is suitable for early realisation because it can exploit the existing infrastructure and technologies without requiring huge investments," explains François Bosquillon de Frescheville, responsible for ESA future human exploration mission operations concepts studies, whose idea triggered the programme.
This prototype is a four-wheel rover with two arms, an advanced navigation system, cameras and sensors that has been under testing since 2008 at the Agency's ESTEC space research and technology centre in the Netherlands.
"With these senses, the astronauts will have a real feeling of the forces that the arms of the robots are experiencing in their environment," explains André Schiele, in charge of ESA's Telerobotics & Haptics Laboratory.
Whatever route the future exploration of Moon and Mars might follow, it will require sophisticated communications and advanced tools. Boosted by new human-machine interface technology, astronauts in orbit will almost certainly link up with robots to explore planetary surfaces.