Airbus Defence and Space joined up with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the UK Space Agency (UKSA) to study how collaboration between humans and machines can make the exploration of the universe more efficient.
The goal of the ESA programme known as Meteron (Multi-Purpose End-To-End Robotic Operation Network) is to understand and develop the technologies needed for future space exploration missions, and look at how humans and robotics can work together.
In the future, remotely operated robots could help build habitats and generate power on the moon, laying the foundations for a sustainable human base. On Mars, they could explore hazardous areas and prime science locations before astronauts go there.
“The Meteron programme is trying to address the end-to-end operations of various robotic platforms by humans, all through robotic systems that can actually take decisions by themselves” says Elie Allouis, a leader of the Airbus Defence and Space team and the co-principal investigator of the Meteron project. “To test various scenarios and to validate the related technologies, robots and rovers on Earth will be controlled from the International Space Station with haptic feedback and video footage.”
As a part of Meteron, British ESA astronaut Tim Peake performed a challenging experiment last April. Whilst in orbit on the International Space Station, he controlled a robotic rover called Bridget, driving it across the Airbus Mars Yard in Stevenage, UK.
The experiment was to investigate if an astronaut could drive a rover in a dark environment. In normal daylight conditions, the rovers currently under development in Stevenage have autonomous navigation; they can plot a route and drive themselves safely across the Martian surface. But in dark conditions, where battery life becomes an issue due to a lack of sunlight, having the rover controlled by an astronaut ensures that it can perform the maximum science and overcome unexpected obstacles more quickly.
Using Bridget’s eyes, Tim Peake was able to identify a series of painted targets in a darkened area of the Mars Yard that had been set up to represent a cave on the Red Planet.
When Tim Peake drove Bridget there was a delay before his instructions were carried out, a result of the time it took the signals to be relayed from the ISS to the Mars test area. There were also a few breaks in the transmission as is often the case from the ISS as it orbits. These conditions are the same as an astronaut in orbit around the Moon or Mars would have when remotely operating a rover.
Bridget is one of a series of rovers that Airbus Defence and Space has developed for the ESA ExoMars Programme and the rover had new software installed to enable a person to remotely control drive it across the mars yard. Watch the video here: METERON - Driving Mars Rover from Space
“We have introduced new functions that enable a human operator to exercise the full range of motion for a rover, while keeping in mind the flexibility of the interfaces for future applications,” says Giuseppe Montano, UK Advanced Studies and Data Processing group leader at Airbus Defence and Space.
After two hours driving and exploring Tim Peake successfully drove the rover out of the cave and handed control back to ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt (Germany). The experiment showed that the interfaces and data connections worked and it generated a lot of new data for the engineers to study and plan the next steps for human and robotic interactions.
A number of new experiments are in the making as Airbus Defence and Space investigates future Lunar Rover designs. One will use harsh lighting to cast very long shadows similar to those at the lunar South Pole to see if astronauts will still be able to make sense of their environment in such challenging lighting conditions.