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Luca controls NASA robot from orbit to help plan for Mars

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Jul 28, 2013, 23:00 UTC

Sen—Robotic rovers are famously already exploring the surface of Mars. They generally have had to work according to commands uploaded to them well in advance by mission control.

But both NASA and the European Space Agency are preparing to give astronauts more hands-on control of the machines, getting them to obey commands virtually in real time.

The latest experiment was carried out on Friday when ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano remotely controlled NASA’s K10 planetary rover in a simulated lunar terrain from orbit in the International Space Station.

He was following up on earlier tests by NASA’s Chris Cassidy from the space station on June 17 when he also drove K10 remotely in what is called the Roverscape, a test area at NASA Ames Research Center in California.

As Luca issued his commands, engineers on the ground watched the 1.35-metre (4.5 ft) tall K10 obey by deploying an antenna. The four-wheeled rover is equipped with several cameras and a 3D laser-scanning system to carry out survey work.

The two tests were the first using NASA’s open-source Robot Application Programming Interface Delegate (RAPID) robot data messaging system. A third will be carried out in August. It has been designed to control a wide variety of systems including rovers, walking robots, free-flying robots and robotic cranes.

But although the astronauts take command, the system also gives the robots some autonomy so that they can work out how best to obey the commands and how to avoid any obstacles.

For ESA, André Schiele is leading the development of similar technology at Noordwijk in the Netherlands. He leads a project called METERON - Multi-Purpose End-To-End Robotic Operation Network - to make controlling ground-based robots easier from space.

André told Sen: “When humans fly to Mars we want first to send robots to prepare the way for them, performing the manual hard labour. Then when the astronauts arrive, they can wait in orbit for the robots to finish building their base where they will live and work.

“The astronauts will be orbiting Mars, basically waiting for their base to be built. Only at the very end would they descend to land on the martian surface and carry out the final touches to the construction.”

K10 rover at NASA Ames

The K10 rover controlled remotely by Luca Parmitano in the Roverscape test area at NASA Ames. Credit: NASA

Terry Fong, Human Exploration Telerobotics project manager and director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA Ames, said of the US tests: “Whereas it is common practice in undersea exploration to use a joystick and have direct control of remote submarines, the K10 robots are more intelligent.

“Astronauts interact with the robots at a higher level, telling them where to go, and then the robot itself independently and intelligently figures out how to safely get there.”

Other robotic experiments have already been carried out on the ISS. In May, a Canadian-built robot called Dextre spent five days working with tools outside the orbiting outpost to demonstrate how machines will in future repair satellites in orbit.

A humanoid robot called Robonaut 2 has also been installed by NASA on the ISS. And last year, NASA astronaut Sunita Williams controlled a small European robotic rover in Germany by using a laptop computer aboard the station.

Such remote control tests could be used on missions into deep space by NASA’s new Orion spacecraft. From a stable zone called the L2 Lagrange point, 65,000 km (40,000 miles) above the far side of the Moon, astronauts could command a robot to do survey work or deploy a telescope.

Professor Jack Burns, of Colorado University and NASA’s Lunar Science Institute, said: “Deploying a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon would allow us to make observations of the early Universe free from the radio noise of Earth.

“The Surface Telerobotics test represents a next step in new modes of exploration that will bring together humans and robots, as well as science and exploration. Such telerobotics technology will be needed for exploration of the moon, asteroids and eventually the surface of Mars.”