There are cases other than pandemics that require remote work. Spacecraft operators are forced to do most of their work remotely while their cargoes move through the solar system. Sometimes these trips take place a little closer to home. The engineers at DLR, the German space agency, recently took the concept of remote working to a whole new level when they operated a rover in an entirely different country nearly 700 kilometers away while working remotely from their main office.
The rover known as Interact was located at the European Space Research Center, the “technical heart” of ESA's operations in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. Interact was operated at the DLR Institute for Robotics and Mechatronics near Munich. As with all good space missions, the operators did not work alone. They had the support of a "mission control center" in the European Space Operations Center of ESA in Darmstadt.
A single operator holds the fort in the ESA mission control room for the Interact remote test. Image credit: ESA
Interact itself is a tool to test how remote control for future ESA rovers on the moon could be possible. Any future lunar rover could possibly be controlled by operators located in the Lunar Gateway or a similar space station.
A remote operation out of orbit would likely not have to deal with the effects of the current pandemic. Unfortunately, like the rest of us, Interact is stuck here on the ground. That said, they're also prone to COVID-related delays. The ESA team responsible for Interact originally planned a trip to Mount Etna, an active volcano in Sicily with the most lunar geography in Europe. Travel restrictions ruined that idea, and the team did what space explorers do best – they adapted.
Remote Interact Rover taking a geological sample.
Photo credit: ESA – SJM Photography
This adjustment took the form of a newly defined remote operation test. Instead of controlling the robot remotely on the slopes of Mount Etna, ESA and its employees at DLR could set up the robot anywhere and then control it remotely. Just for an added challenge, they added another robot to the mix.
A smaller robot based in Germany was networked with the Interact Rover to coordinate the two bots in a remote environment during operation. Although they weren't physically close to each other, their operational logic was tricked into believing that they were. The team hoped to enable the two bots to move together, much like what is expected when they are actually in the same place.
UT's look back at moon rovers and how they shaped our understanding of our closest neighbor.
All of these successful remote controls and tests are part of an ongoing effort to expand the ability of humans to interact with robots. The program, called Meteron, for the multipurpose end-to-end network for robotic operations is hosted by ESA's Human Robotic Interaction Laboratory (HRI).
The team at HRI are still trying to address some of the more difficult aspects of remote control of robots, including lag and tactile feedback. Although it operates in near real time, a communication delay always occurs when an operator controls an object hundreds or thousands of kilometers away. How operators deal with this control delay is currently being investigated by the HRI team. Tests like the one with Interact are a key component in solving this puzzle.
Rover operator at DLR in Germany with the haptic feedback joystick
Photo credit: DLR
Another difficulty with remote control is conveying the robot's sense of touch. However, haptic feedback, as you'd expect when a robotic arm touches the floor, has evolved in another area – video games. Advanced flight sticks and video game controls can give an operator a sense of touch, and the HRI team has implemented this feedback into the Interact control system.
These improvements to Interact follow repeated successful milestones for the proof-of-concept robot. The most recent was last year when Interact was remote-controlled by an astronaut on the ISS.
Infographic explaining the METERON project and technology.
Image credit: ESA
Hopefully the ESA will not have to resort to such a remote control when they bring Interact to Etna for testing next summer. If everything goes as planned, astronauts may not only control rovers on the surface of the earth, but also some on the moon.
ESA – ESA's force feedback rover controlled from another nation
UT – ESA will test two rovers working together to explore the moon
UT – This laser powered rover could stay in the shadow of the moon and continue exploring
Feature Image Credit: Interact the rover remotely.
Photo credit: ESA – SJM Photography