DLR’s Robotic and Mechatronics Centre — part of the German Aerospace Center, which oversees the country’s space program — recently conducted successful trials of its SUPVIS Justin humanoid robot.

The robot is part of the center’s Multi-Purpose End-To-End Robotic Operation Network (METERON) project, which is exploring the applications and capabilities of potential future robotic-human space missions.

Paolo Nespoli, a European Space Agency astronaut, operated Justin from the International Space Station, completing some basic maintenance tasks remotely by issuing commands on a tablet. Following Nespoli’s completion of the tests, two other astronauts on board the space station, Jack Fischer and Randy Bresnik from NASA, were given the opportunity to also test out the system, without any training. The system’s intuitive control interface enabled both astronauts to successfully complete the tests. Justin remained on Earth in a simulated Mars environment where maintenance was performed on a solar farm.

The test demonstrated supervised autonomy, in which the operator does not need to guide the robot through every step of a task, but the robot is also not fully autonomous and does not make decisions completely on its own; supervised autonomy is somewhere in the middle. This is beneficial because it does not leave sensitive tasks completely up to a robotic system, but makes a robot autonomous enough that delays in communication do not prevent it from proceeding. Tasks tested included plugging in a port, navigation, and taking photos. Further tests are planned once feedback is incorporated to improve the system.

 

SUPVIS Justin humanoid robot. Image courtesy of DLR.

 

Why Do We Need Space Robots?

Robotic aids in space exploration are becoming increasingly important, especially as many companies and space agencies turn their focus to human exploration of the moon or Mars. The European Space Agency, in particular, has been promoting the concept of a ”moon village,” in which permanent exploration outposts are built on the moon. NASA also has announced that it intends to develop (with various partners) a Deep Space Gateway — a space station that will orbit the moon. The gateway is seen as the next step after the ISS.

There is also a sense that establishing a presence on the moon is a step before eventually heading toward Mars — this will act as a proving ground for what we will need before we wander too far away from Earth. Others are planning to skip the moon and go straight to Mars with human explorers.

Robotic systems can help build the infrastructure required to sustain humans before astronauts arrive at these environments. They can also assist with complex or difficult tasks, withstand the harsh environment of space, and identify dangers without putting human lives at risk. Projects like METERON have been especially useful to explore the performance and needs of teleoperated robotic systems, since robots will likely be controlled from a distance, under varying conditions.

 


Different levels of autonomy will also be useful in deep space human settlements — routine maintenance could be handled by a fully autonomous system, or specialized tasks by a human-operated one. The level of autonomy required is dependent on the tasks the robot will need to perform, as well as the reliability of communication. Operating a robot on Mars from Earth, for example, has a much higher communication delay and lower reliability than operating one on the ISS.

 

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