Saturday, November 28, 2015

Experiment of the Week: Haptics-1

A ground concept of a haptic input device. The 
Haptic experiments on ISS will one day allow for 
astronauts to control robots on the surface of a planet 
or moon remotely from orbit. Photo Credit: ESA
Starting with this post, I will aim to write about one experiment or science rack each week. This week's experiment is the Haptics-1 experiment.

First, what is "haptics?" Haptics is any form of touch sensation, in particular, relating to perception and manipulation of objects using senses.

Haptics-1 is a European Space Agency (ESA) investigation into remote-controlled robotic operation and how to make human operators "feel" what a robot "feels." According to ESA, future human exploration of planets will almost certainly involve robots controlled by humans. Robots can do specialized tasks in harsh environments, while humans are more fragile. Humans are unrivaled, however, at adaptive quick-thinking - robots are not. Telerobotics allow for a "best of both words" situation where humans can control a robot in near real time. But in order to control something efficiently, feedback is required.

A cell phone has haptic feedback. When you press a button on your on-screen keyboard, the phone usually vibrates to signal that you have pressed something. Robots being controlled from orbit above Mars will need similar feedback for the controller. With the proper feedback, an astronaut could use a robot to adjudge the force needed to grip a rock or tool the right amount.

While work like this could be done on Earth, one major unknown is how astronauts experience haptic feedback in the microgravity environment of space.

NASA astronaut Barry Willmore operates the Haptics-1 
joystick. The simple-looking lever is connected to a 
servomotor that can withstand any force an astronaut 
might unleash on it. Photo Credit: NASA
Haptics-1 aims to answer that question by astronauts using a joystick to control games, and simple tasks. By studying how the astronaut reacts to the feedback, engineers can design systems tailored to future astronauts on journeys to Mars.

The joystick is highly advanced. It can sense motion that humans cannot feel and can withstand an astronauts kick and still function properly. It is strapped to the waist of an astronaut as to not push the astronaut away.

Haptics-1 was the first haptic telerobotics experiment done in space. It was launched on the final Automated Transfer Vehicle, ATV-5, in August 2014. Since then, Haptics-2 and "Interact" have launched. They are a bit more evolved and all three are still being used aboard ISS. Whereas Haptics-1 is more about real-time force feedback, Haptics-2 "extends" the human arm from space to ground. By controlling a lever on ISS, it moves one on Earth. A person on the ground can move that same lever and effectively "shake hands" with the astronaut. Interact goes a step further by allowing the astronaut to control basic functions of a robot on the surface of Earth.

All three are part of the METERON project. METERON stands for Multi-Purpose End to End Robotics Operations Network. The goal is to "test the waters" on human operation of robots from space - something that, until now, has never been done. 

Teleoperating robots requires the Internet to send commands and receive information. Because distances in space are so vast, signal times can take anywhere from seconds (at the Moon) to upwards of 45 minutes (at Mars). The creation of a new network protocol called the Disruption Tolerant Network assures correct operation, even if signal is lost.

For more information visit ESA's METERON page. Learn about the three flight experiments here.
Andreas Mogensen teleoperates the Interact rover from space.
Video courtesy of ESA