Remote-controlled robots for dangerous missions in space
Delta robots are typically used for packaging – for example candies. Now one of these robots has made it onto the International Space Station in the form of a high-tech joystick: The system, developed at the EPF Lausanne, is designed to help remote-control exploration robots.
Satellite repairs or the exploration in hostile environments on the Moon or Mars: The European Space Agency ESA is looking for ways to carry out dangerous missions using remote-controlled robots.
On board the International Space Station (ISS), initial tests are being conducted with a remote control interface called “sigma.7”, which was developed by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne and which provides astronauts with haptic feedback. It allows them to “feel” what the remote-controlled robot is doing.
This state-of-the-art joystick is based on a delta robot, a parallel arm robot invented by EPFL researcher Reymond Clavel 34 years ago. Delta robots are used in industry, for example for the packaging of confectionery or tablets but also for assembly tasks. The new device was developed by “Force Dimension”, an EPFL spin-off company.
Since there are currently no suitable remote-controlled robots on the Moon or Mars with which to try out the device, the ISS astronauts are testing the control interface with a specially developed rover on Earth. Initial tests have already been successful, the EPFL reports. The robot on Earth – controlled from the ISS – drove through an obstacle course at the ESA base in the Netherlands and collected stones.
The haptic feedback is so close to reality that the astronauts controlling the robot can even distinguish between hard, soft, smooth, and rough surfaces, explained François Conti, one of the co-founders of the spin-off. Moreover, the feedback reaches the astronauts almost in real time.
Although there is actually a communication lag of a few seconds between the Moon and Earth, ESA is already working on new technologies to compensate for this delay. When the astronauts are controlling the robot from a base in orbit or on the surface of the Moon or Mars, the lag is negligible.