ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano made robotics history, reaching out from the International Space Station in orbit around Earth at 8 km/s, to control an Earth-based rover, equipped with an advanced gripper possessing the equivalent mobility and dexterity of a human hand.
This gripper was able to pick up and collect rock samples from the mock-lunar environment. In the future a comparable system may well be used to explore alien environments, with astronauts controlling surface rovers from the safety and comfort of a surface habitat or an orbiting spacecraft.
The Analog-1 test project, which concluded with this two-hour space-to-ground test on 25 November, had multiple technical goals. High among them was to assess the use of ‘force-feedback’ controls – like a high-end gaming joystick pushing back on their user, giving them a sense of touch – in space, to evaluate if this technology would enable high-precision robotic control in weightless conditions.
“Imagine the robot as Luca’s avatar on Earth, providing him with both vision and touch,” says ESA engineer Kjetil Wormnes, heading the Analog-1 test campaign. “It was equipped with two cameras – one in the palm of its hand, the other in a manoeuvrable arm – to let Luca and the remotely-located scientists observe the environment and get a close-up on the rocks.”
As journalists watched, the Luca-controlled rover completed its sampling campaign right on schedule, traversing between a trio of sampling sites along challengingly narrow pathways. While selecting rocks Luca received advice from a team of geological experts based at the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Germany, simulating a real-life surface exploration survey.
“We benefitted from Luca’s previous training through our Pangaea programme, giving astronauts practical experience in geology,” adds Jessica Grenouilleau, Meteron project lead at ESA’s Exploration Systems Group. “It helped tremendously in having an efficient discussion between the crew and the scientists.”
Analog-1 has been the latest in a series of progressively more challenging human-robot test campaigns involving the ISS, collectively called Meteron – Multi-purpose End-to-End Robotic Operation Network. The first 1 degree of freedom force-feedback test took place back in 2015 with ESA’s Haptics-1 experiment, progressing to DLR’s 2 degrees of freedom Kontur-2 the following year – advancing now to a full 6 degrees of freedom movement.
The next step will be an outdoor test campaign in a Moon-like terrestrial location. A rover would examine and collect genuine rocks in an operational scenario resembling the complexity of a full mission on the Moon.