This Telerobotic Hand Is Headed to Space

The ESA is sending the first haptic telerobotics into space this year, so astronauts can play Pong in the name of research.

May 1 2014, 1:55pm
Image: ESA/Guus Schoonewille

The European Space Agency just released the above image of a robot hand developed in their telerobotics lab, and it’s just a taste of the kind of telerobotics we can expect to see making their way into space from this year.

The hand works in sync with a haptic controller, which allows the user to control the hand with their own physical movements. If you’re a regular reader of Motherboard, you’re forgiven if the first thing that comes to mind at those keywords is futuristic sex toys, but the haptic remote control of devices has more serious applications too. Steering rovers around planets or controlling robots in orbit, for instance.

In the case of the robot hand, an engineer moves his or her own fingers in a high tech gauntlet with mechanical joints, and those movements are communicated directly to the hand. That kind of human-robot interaction has obvious advantages in space: The idea is that someone could control an object thousands of miles away while remaining in the comfort of our comparatively warm, oxygen-filled, life-supporting atmosphere, or in the relative safety of the ISS.

It doesn’t just work one-way, either; the user gets feedback from the robot, so they basically feel as if they’re there in space doing the task themselves. “Stereo cameras offer 3D vision and the operator feels force-feedback, as found in high-end video game joysticks, to gain a working sense of touch as the robot manipulates objects,” the ESA explained in a release.

For now, the hand remains earthbound in their lab in the Netherlands, but this summer will see the launch of what the ESA claims to be the first haptic telerobotics in space. Equipment for their Haptics-1 experiment will be sent up with the ATV-5 space freighter, which lifts off to the ISS in July

Image: ESA

That will include the body-mounted joystick above, which admittedly looks a little dorkier. It won’t be put to use in any crucial operations just yet either. “The experiment comes down to a deceptively simple-looking lever that can be moved freely to play basic Pong-style computer games,” the ESA wrote. In space, the force of the controller pushing back could propel the astronaut backwards—hence the steampunk harness. 

The purpose of the experiment is to see how astronauts at the station will experience touch-based feedback while experiencing weightlessness. That’s something that hasn’t been tested before, and will help develop telerobotic systems that are sensitive enough to deal with complex tasks.

The android astronauts might just have to concede that they’re not quite up to the job without the delicate touch of a human at the controls just yet.