ISS Astronaut Controls Earth-bound Robot from Space

October 21, 2015 | Sarah Tse

Remotely-controlled Interact Rover inserting peg
Photo credit: ESA

An astronaut onboard the International Space Station remote-controlled a robot on Earth using highly sensitive feedback technology.

Last month, astronaut Andreas Mogensen performed the relatively simple procedure of inserting a round peg into a round hole. Not impressed? Well, the operation was a bit complicated by the fact that he was separated from the peg and hole by about 400 km of space.

Mogensen remotely controlled the Interact Centaur Rover, located at European Space Agency’s technical center in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, while orbiting on the ISS. The force-feedback control system allowed for highly precise and responsive movements, allowing him to feel through a joystick whenever the rover’s robotic arm met resistance.

SEE ALSO: Commanding the Brain via Remote Control

Using the joystick, Mogensen directed a rover armed with a camera head, two prehensile arms, and multiple proximity and location sensors, towards the task-board containing the peg and hole. Although the “brain” and the “muscles” were separated by 400 km, the signals between Mogensen’s control system and the rover had an even longer way to travel: from the ISS as it orbited at 8 km/s, up to a different satellite 36,000 km above Earth’s surface, down to a ground station in New Mexico, USA via NASA Houston, across a transatlantic cable, to the ESA technical center, and then back up to the ISS. In total, a journey of over 144,000 km.

To compensate for this two-way time delay nearly one second long, the center developed software called “model-mediated control” to keep everything synchronized. Mogensen was able to command the rover to approach the task-board and insert the peg into the hole in 45 minutes on his first attempt, and only 10 minutes on his second try.

This advance in remotely controlling robots will allow us to work in dangerous or inaccessible environments with better control. In the future, we will be able to achieve complex procedures in settings ranging from the deep sea to the Moon, and beyond.


Based on materials published by the European Space Agency.

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