In first, NASA astronaut in space controls robot on Earth

NASA working to enable human-robotic cooperation on asteroid or Mars

In an effort to further human and robot cooperation in space, a NASA astronaut aboard the International Space Station flying 240 miles above Earth controlled a robot on the ground.

NASA researchers are working to someday make it possible for astronauts onboard an orbiting spacecraft to control robots working on the moon, an asteroid or even Mars. The project, dubbed Surface Telerobotics, will help scientists figure out the needs for future human-robotic systems.

"A robot on the surface controlled by crew in an orbiting or approaching vehicle could get a lot of the precursor surface exploration work done," said Maria Bualat, a technical lead on the project based at NASA's Ames Research Center. "A robot could prepare a landing site, they could scout for a clear area, make sure the ground is firm or even build a landing strip... But it would need guidance."

Bualat said in a videotaped interview on the NASA website that researchers have built a special control system for astronauts, who have to manage weightlessness and other factors in space, to use with robots on the surface.

"There's a communications delay between the station and a robot on the ground," she added. "It makes it very difficult to joy stick because of that delay. We use something called supervisory control. A robot is pretty smart. It can perform tasks and keep itself safe. Then the astronaut can take over if the rover runs into any trouble."

NASA needs to know how a person working in the weightlessness of space, with the stresses and disorientation that can put on a body, reacts to this new robotic system. "We've never done any kind of testing in space," Bualat said.

To that end, last month Astronaut Chris Cassidy, who is part of the current crew on the space station, completed a two-and-a-half-hour robotics experiment, the first of three planned for this summer.

The first experiment had Cassidy working with a robot in a simulation of the machine deploying a radio telescope on the far side of the moon. The robot actually was working inside the Ames Research Center in an area set up to simulate the surface of the moon.

Cassidy, who pressed buttons on a control board to send the robot commands, was able to see live images from the robot's cameras, along with 3D virtual views of the robot.

NASA has not reported on the results of the first experiment with Surface Telerobotics. However, the other two scheduled experiments are set to take place this month and next month.

"We will analyze the data to see how the systems work and see if there are any new technologies that will be needed," said Bualat.

This article, In first, NASA astronaut in space controls robot on Earth, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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