ESA Astronaut Commands Robots in Space-to-Earth Avatar Experiment
by Staff Writers
Berlin, Germany (SPX) Jan 26, 2024
In the high-tech Mars laboratory of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Oberpfaffenhofen, a silence of concentration prevails as a remarkable experiment unfolds, bridging the vast expanse between the International Space Station (ISS) and Earth. Swedish ESA project astronaut Marcus Wandt, stationed in the Columbus module of the ISS, is at the forefront of the ‘Surface Avatar’ experiment, a novel project leading the way in telerobotics.
The Surface Avatar experiment, led by the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the German Space Operations Center (GSOC), is exploring new frontiers in space technology. Its objective is to develop innovative technologies enabling astronauts to remotely control multiple robots with precision. This experiment, building upon earlier tests conducted in July 2023, places a special focus on understanding how time delays impact robot control during space missions. Such technology is crucial for future exploration missions to the Moon and Mars, where collaborative, intelligent robots could significantly augment human capabilities.
A significant leap in this experiment is the introduction of the dog-like DLR robot named Bert, marking a world premiere in the realm of telerobotics. Bert, unlike his wheel-driven counterparts, is equipped with leg-based locomotion, allowing him to traverse and explore challenging terrains, such as rough surfaces and small caves. ESA project astronaut Marcus Wandt expertly navigated Bert through the lab’s environment, utilizing the robot’s camera eyes to monitor the terrain. Concurrently, Wandt managed the operations of two other robots: DLR’s humanoid service robot Rollin’ Justin and ESA’s Interact Rover.
The experiment highlighted the complexities of cooperation, not just among humans but also between diverse robotic entities. Demonstrating a significant advancement, the robots, under Wandt’s command, successfully completed a collaborative task. Rollin’ Justin, employing its dexterous hands, grasped and positioned a pipe, which was then installed by the Interact Rover. This task, representing the installation of a scientific measuring device, illustrated the potential of combining various robotic skills for complex operations.
Alin Albu-Schaffer, Director of the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, emphasized the significance of this research, stating, “Future stations on the Moon and Mars, including astronaut habitats, will be built and maintained by robots operating under the guidance of astronauts. Our latest control and AI algorithms enable a single astronaut to command an entire team of different robots. Our DLR-ESA team is a world leader when it comes to this technology.” This statement underscores the pioneering role of the DLR-ESA collaboration in advancing space robotics.
During the two-and-a-half-hour experiment, the Columbus Control Centre in Oberpfaffenhofen provided crucial support by monitoring other activities on board the ISS and ensuring its reliable operation. This allowed the robotics team to concentrate fully on their scientific tasks and maintenance scenarios. The Surface Avatar is part of ten German experiments being conducted by ESA project astronaut Marcus Wandt as part of his Axiom Space mission Muninn.
This experiment offers a glimpse into the future of space exploration, where human intelligence is seamlessly augmented by robotic prowess. As we venture further into space, experiments like the Surface Avatar will pave the way for more ambitious missions, redefining our approach to space exploration and extraterrestrial operations.