Astronaut in Space Drives Robot on Earth

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NASA's K10 rover is seen at dawn at the Ames Research Center's specially built "Roverscape" in Moffett Field, Calif. The rover was remote controlled by an astronaut on the International Space Station during a June 2013 technology test.
NASA Ames Research Center

NASA transformed the International Space Station into a command center for a robot on Earth this month for a first-of-its-kind test drive of the technology and skills needed to remotely operate robots on the moon, Mars or an asteroid.

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During the June 17 space technology test, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, a space station flight engineer, remotely controlled a K10 rover at the agency's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. The robot was commanded to simulate deploying a polyimide-film antenna in a specially built "Roverscape" at the NASA center.

On the space station, Cassidy received telemetry and real-time video from the rover and monitored the robot's reaction to his commands via virtual terrain displays. [See photos of NASA's K10 rover being controlled from space]

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"We successfully conducted the first 'surface telerobotics' test session with the International Space Station," said Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames. "Cassidy used K10 to perform a surface site survey and to begin deploying a simulated Kapton film-based radio antenna."

Fong said follow-up test sessions between rover and the space station will be conducted in late July and early August. Those sessions will focus on completing antenna deployment, inspecting the deployment and studying human-robot interaction.

"We're still finalizing the date of the next test session but anticipate that it will be sometime during the week of July 22," Fong told SPACE.com.

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The technology demonstrations will also investigate how communication delays over large distances could influence an astronaut's aptitude to take supervisory control of a robot in the event the machinery finds itself in trouble or unable to move.

Fong was bullish on the rover/space station linkup. The test session, he said, was notable for achieving a number of firsts, including the following:

  • The first real-time teleoperation of a planetary rover from the space station.
  • The first real-time supervisory control of a planetary rover from the station.
  • The first astronaut to interactively control a high-fidelity planetary rover in an outdoor planetary analog.
  • The first use of space station and NASA data networks to connect a crew member's laptop computer to an outdoor robot.
  • The first use of the NASA RAPID robot messaging system to control a robot from space.
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