On November 25, the ESA ISS telerobotics experiment Analog-1 took place using robotic DLR technology. Astronaut Luca Parmitano steered the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Interact Rover in a test site in Valkenburg, the Netherlands that is similar to the lunar surface. There he successfully collected rock samples with a robotic arm. It was the first time that such a complex robot was remotely controlled from space using force feedback. This teleoperation controller was developed at the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics.
Luca Parmitano had already tested the remote control of the rover and robotic arm during its proficiency run on Monday, November 18. In this experiment, for the first time a human being could move a robot on Earth from the ISS in all directions and even perceive the forces felt by the robot.
With the help of this force feedback, the astronaut can intuitively control the interacting forces of the robot and thus carry out delicate tasks. DLR scientist Harsimran Singh explains, “DLR’s control approach ensures that the robot doesn’t apply any forces to the environment before the astronaut senses it, which is crucial for the safety of the robot’s interaction with its environment, especially in the case of a long time delay.”
The teleoperation technology is complex on Earth as it is, but in space there are additional challenges, explains DLR scientist Michael Panzirsch. “Firstly, the force feedback coupling is impaired by very high and variable time delays of 800 ms on average, with outliers of up to 3 seconds, data packet loss or even communication interruptions. Secondly, the astronaut is in microgravity, which can lead to loss of sensomotor function, potentially making teleoperation difficult.”
The Analog-1 experiment is the final link in a chain of experiments called METERON, which explores, among other things, how intelligent robots on planetary surfaces can be controlled by astronauts in orbit.
As early as 2017 and 2018, astronauts such as Alexander Gerst were controlling the humanoid robot Justin in the DLR robot laboratory from the ISS. If robots explore the moon or Mars in the future, or set up or maintain an infrastructure there, astronauts could operate the autonomous robots from a space station.
“Even if this kind of experiment looks simple, the technical complexity (human-robot interaction) under the conditions of the space station requires the collaboration of many experts,” says Thomas Krüger, head of ESA’s Human Robot Interaction Laboratory. “We’re very happy with our cooperation with the DLR, and hope to continue it in the future and further missions.”