Usually, when you hear about joysticks and outer space, someone is waxing nostalgic about vintage video games like “Space Invaders” or “Asteroids.” However, the European Space Agency (ESA) recently designed a wearable joystick — not too different than the Artari controller – that will allow astronauts to control robots and other machines in space.
The joystick’s complex system features robust servo motors developed for operation in extreme conditions. It also includes crucial sensory feedback technology so astronauts can feel the robot’s maneuvers. For example, if a robot is gathering rock samples on a planet, an astronaut needs to feel the weight of those objects. But any force feedback in microgravity could influence an astronaut’s movement. Therefore, the joystick is connected to a corset-like harness that can be fastened to a wall.
“Getting the hardware to be extremely precise yet incredibly sturdy was the project’s main challenge,” André Schiele, head of ESA’s Telerobotics and Haptics Laboratory, said in a press release. “The resulting system can produce minute forces most people are not sensitive enough to feel, but astronauts could kick it and it will still work and respond correctly.”
This summer, the joystick is expected to be stowed inside ESA’s next supply ship to the International Space Station. Astronauts will experiment and get a feel for the device by using it to play computer games similar to “Pong.” Performance readings from these trials, along with follow-up surveys, will investigate the effects of human motor control in weightless conditions and determine how the sensory feedback responds.
Until then, astronauts will just have themselves entertained by doing their job and uploading cool videos to Youtube. Though Chris Hadfield has already raised the bar pretty high by covering David Bowie and wringing out wet wash clothes.