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ISS astronaut to teleoperate robot on earth via haptic feedback

28 August 2015

Early September will see the first force-feedback-based teleoperation of a rover-based robotic arm system on Earth from the International Space Station.

ESA's Interact Centaur rover has a pair of robotic arms that can flex in a similar manner to human arms and can provide the operator with force feedback (photot: ESA)

Danish ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen will take control of the Interact Centaur rover, which incorporates a pair of arms to perform precision operations. In the process. he will make use of haptic control to perform dexterous mechanical assembly tasks in the sub-millimetre range, remotely-controlled from space.

Interact Centaur is 4x4 wheeled vehicle combining a camera head on a neck system, a pair of highly advanced force sensitive robotic arms designed for remote force-feedback-based operation and a number of proximity and localisation sensors.

Monday 7 September should see the Interact rover driven around the grounds of ESA’s ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, from the ISS orbiting 400km above the earth. 

The ‘operations task board’ and the pin gripped by Interact Centaur, which must be precisely inserted with a tolerance of some 150 micrometres (photo: ESA)

Mogensen, due to launch to the ISS on 2 September, will first attempt to guide the robot to locate an ‘operations task board’ and then to remove and plug a metal pin into it, which has a very tight mechanical fit and tolerance of just 150 micrometres.

Interact’s arms can be programmed to be soft and flexing, in order to comply in a controlled way with any active or passive environment. When they hit an object, they flex in a similar manner to human arms and can provide the operator with force feedback to let them know the robot has encountered an obstacle but not damaged anything.

“This force information will be used to plan the following motions by the astronaut, as if he would be there doing the task by himself with his own arms and hands," says André Schiele, principal experimenter and head of ESA’s Telerobotics and Haptics Laboratory. "This helps make the robotic remote operation very intuitive, allowing remote operations to take place across very long distances up to places that are 450,000km apart.”

ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen will board the Soyuz TMA-18M flight to the International Space Station in September (photo: ESA)

The signals from astronaut to rover during the experiment must travel via a system of geostationary satellites, covering a distance of nearly 90,000km. The resulting two-way time delay approaches one second in length.

“Although the ESA developed smart software and control methods can enable astronauts even during longer time-delay operations, research suggests that people can handle time delays during hand-eye coordination tasks of only up to three seconds on a satisfactory basis,” Schiele adds. “This would still allow haptic control of rovers and robotic arms as far away as on the Moon’s surface.”

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