Recently, astronaut Andreas Mogensen placed a metal connector in a receptacle that had a mechanical tolerance to the connector of only 150 micro-meters. The success was notable because Andreas wasn’t trained to perform this task and performed while in space — some 160000 km away from the robot. But the procedure took a whopping 45 minutes. Researchers with the European Space Agency later realized that the problem was the communication protocol. “Instead of having had a round-trip communication time delay in the task of approximately 850 milliseconds, the delay had jumped up, halfway through the experiment, to a total of 12 seconds! He still managed to do the haptic connector mating by using force-feedback, it was clear that the communications protocol needed to be improved,” reads the ESA Website.
Now a new communication solution help alleviate that problem, allowing astronauts in an orbiting space station to maintain uninterrupted contact with robots working on the surface of a planet. The technology also has potential industrial applications, such as reducing lag and jitter in mobile gaming.
Developed by the UNISONO team, the technology is an important step forward for initiatives such as the human mission to Mars. Before humans can land on Mars, the planet needs infrastructure, such as housing and laboratories, which need to be built by robots. These robots need to be controlled by astronauts from a space station orbiting the planet.
Astronauts can currently practice controlling robots on Earth from the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS is in constant orbit around Earth, which means that the astronauts frequently lose direct contact with the robot. This results in discontinuity in the data and video transmission, which makes it challenging to maintain the control of a robot.
“Losing control of the robot during a critical task can cause damage to the task or the robot itself. The UNISONO project has developed a solution which can keep the astronaut in constant contact with the robot during entire orbit,” said Ali Muhammad, principal investigator of robotics systems at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, which coordinates the project.
The time window for ISS to be in direct contact with a robot on Earth is much shorter than what is planned for the Mars. The UNISONO project has shown how the time window available to the astronaut can be widened by seamlessly switching between relaying stations on the ground. This would allow astronauts to realistically simulate future robotic missions on Mars, moon or other heavenly bodies.
The technology also has many potential industrial applications. The same idea can be used to design seamless wireless data transmission systems to stop smart phones from losing signal when people use them in a moving vehicle.
The gaming industry could use the technology to eliminate lags and jitters in mobile games.
“Mobile gamers frequently experience lags and other connection issues during a game. The technology developed in the course of the UNISONO project could improve their experience,” said Janne Seppänen, research scientist at VTT.