While the International Space Station (ISS) flies over Europe, cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko controls the German Aerospace Center’s ROKVISS robot in a laboratory in Oberpfaffenhofen with the Kontur-2 joystick. Credit: ROSKOSMOS /O. Kononenko.

While the International Space Station (ISS) flies over Europe, cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko controls the German Aerospace Center’s ROKVISS robot in a laboratory in Oberpfaffenhofen with the Kontur-2 joystick.
Credit: ROSKOSMOS /O. Kononenko.

This autumn the first “tele-handshake” will be performed between the International Space Station (ISS) and Earth.

The Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics at Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) is leading the experiment. A preliminary test of the human-machine interaction took place on August 18, 2015.

From the ISS, cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko controlled the Robotic Components Verification on the ISS (ROKVISS) robot on the ground.

According to the DLR, the connection between space and Earth is not one-directional – the ROKVISS (Robotic Components Verification on the ISS) sends data back to the joystick when contact forces occur on the ground.

Force feedback

The upcoming experiment will have a cosmonaut on board the ISS use the Kontur 2 joystick to operate a DLR robot – “Space Justin” — who will remotely shake a person’s hand, making use of force feedback.

This telepresence technology testing is geared for use in future space exploration scenario. For example, a space traveler could operate a robotic assistant from a space station while it performs tasks requiring fine motor skills, say on the surface of Mars or on the Moon to build habitats.

The astronauts would make use of force feedback to enable them to feel as though they are working locally.

Smooth rehearsal

In the August 18 trial run, Kononenko moved the metal fingers of ROKVISS in all directions and gently touched a contoured surface.

While cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko in the International Space Station uses the Kontur-2 joystick to control the ROKVISS robot on the ground, researchers at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) monitor and supervise the contact and give instructions. Credit: DLR

While cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko in the International Space Station uses the Kontur-2 joystick to control the ROKVISS robot on the ground, researchers at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) monitor and supervise the contact and give instructions.
Credit: DLR

Jordi Artigas from the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics provided the cosmonaut appropriate instructions from the ground. Special sensors measured the contact forces when the robot came into contact with an obstacle; this collision data is sent to actuators in the joystick, which then provides feedback to the operator.

“The rehearsal went smoothly, the technology works,” said DLR researcher Cornelia Riecke in a press statement. In total, just four minutes were available to test the remote control between the ISS and DLR.

The transmission of data incurs an average time delay of 30 milliseconds.

“Human reaction time is about 100 milliseconds and causes no problems for the cosmonauts, but for robotic control 30 milliseconds is already a huge challenge, since the closed loop between Earth and the ISS may become unstable,” explains Artigas.

Time domain

The loss of data packets during transmission complicates smooth cooperation between human and a robot.

Practice for the first ‘tele-handshake’ from space. Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka (at the joystick) and Oleg Kononenko (on the screen) train at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) for the first ‘tele-handshake’ in the autumn of 2015. At that time, a cosmonaut on the International Space Station will use the Kontur 2 joystick to operate the DLR’s “Space Justin” robot who will remotely shake someone’s hand. Credit: DLR

Practice for the first ‘tele-handshake’ from space. Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka (at the joystick) and Oleg Kononenko (on the screen) train at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) for the first ‘tele-handshake’ in the autumn of 2015. At that time, a cosmonaut on the International Space Station will use the Kontur 2 joystick to operate the DLR’s “Space Justin” robot who will remotely shake someone’s hand.
Credit: DLR

However, a method developed by DLR for telepresence systems – “Time Domain Passivity Control” — allows for stable and high-performance operation under all possible communications conditions, including delays of up to approximately one second.

The DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics has been researching the field of telerobotics since the 1990s. Over the years, DLR researchers controlled the ROTEX robot inside the space shuttle from the ground. Also, a flight model of the ROKVISS robot was utilized on the outside of the ISS.

Now, for the first time, explains the DLR, a robot with multiple degrees of freedom was controlled from the ISS with force feedback.

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