Beaming instructions from space: robot experiment between the ISS and Oberpfaffenhofen
The Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) has long been a forerunner in the remote control of robot technology for space applications. In 1993, the ROTEX experiment was the first ever in which a robot was remotely controlled from the ground and actually caught a free-floating object in space. In a more recent experiment in December 2015, cosmonaut Sergei Volkov used technology that built on this experiment to operate a ground-based robot from the International Space Station (ISS). At the time, a finely-tuned joystick allowed the cosmonaut to shake hands with institute director Alin Albu-Schäffer and even raise a glass on the success of the Kontur-2 mission.##markend##
Now, two years later, the SUPVIS Justin experiment will continue this success story. A robot will be used as an astronaut’s intelligent assistant on Friday, 25 August 2017. Italian ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli will operate the humanoid robot Rollin' Justin from the International Space Station to test a real scenario during a future Mars mission. Nespoli will control the robot Justin, located in Oberpfaffenhofen near Munich, from his outpost in space. But unlike the Kontur-2 mission, this experiment will not rely on direct remote control. Instead, the robot will use its artificial intelligence to complete complex tasks in a semi-autonomous capacity. In other words, Nespoli will not actively control the robot at all times but will instead instruct the robot on how to complete the task.
This scenario is a paradigm for future exploration scenarios, in which entire fleets of robots will be deployed in preparation for the landing of human missions to Mars. During the experiment, the astronaut will be equipped with only a tablet PC with which he will instruct the robot in the same way one would interact with a colleague. The robot itself has the necessary capabilities to interpret and execute complex commands. For instance, the robot responds to the command “Inspect the solar panel” with a sophisticated sequence of actions, at the end of which it presents the astronaut with the necessary system information – entirely autonomously. This will allow Nespoli to service the solar farm at the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics without actually being there. Justin is therefore the first robot to use artificial intelligence as a means of providing genuine assistance to astronauts.
The SUPVIS Justin experiment is part of the Multi-purpose End-To-End Robotic Operations Network (METERON) mission, which is scheduled to continue into 2018, when the German astronaut Alexander Gerst will also use Rollin' Justin to train for future Mars missions.