It turns out that the future of space exploration may look more like Avatar than other popular science fiction depictions. Those cinematic organic blue avatars are a form of wearables–mechanical exoskeletons that allow for remote control of robots. The immediate implications of such technology include deep space exploration that would drastically reduce risk to humans, as well as ambulatory capabilities for those paralyzed or without full control of their limbs.
NASA worked for years to build a robotic exoskeleton with The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC). Weighing in at 57 pounds, the X1 exoskeleton could both restrict and enable limb movement. The former capacity could provide valuable exercise for astronauts through muscle resistance, particularly during longer spells in space or on expeditions, replacing bulkier exercise machines. The exoskeleton can also transmit biometrics back to scientists planetside. As the technology is developed further, a machine exoskeleton could provide extra power for astronauts on the surface of a distant planet, helping them to walk with less gravity, for example.
Astronauts at the International Space Station tested another form of wearable technology: a joystick developed by the European Space Agency. The METERON (Multi-Purpose End-To-End Robotic Operations Network) research collaboration between countries like the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, and Russia is interested in giving astronauts in orbit the ability to teleoperate robots on the planet’s surface. The highly-sensitive joystick will simulate the force of objects on a planet’s or moon’s terrain, resisting the astronaut’s control.
Testing in the International Space Station will help METERON better understand how this kind of control–which most people experience in video games–feels for those operating in little or no gravity, with extended exposure to weightlessness. Officials from the European Space Agency explained their vision: “’Future planetary exploration may well see robots on an alien surface being teleoperated by humans in orbit above them—close enough for real-time remote control, without any significant signal lag, to benefit from human resourcefulness without the expense and danger of a manned landing.’”
Just a year ago, in late 2015, NASA gave MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) the R5 robot known as “Valkyrie,” that is expected to be part of Mars missions. These humanoid robots can pave the way for astronauts’ arrival, reducing human risk, and stick around to assist astronauts on missions. “‘Human-robotic collaboration’” is seen as critical for longer missions like Mars.
Most recently, DFKI spearheaded the CAPIO project, which produced an exoskeleton that remotely steers a robot called AILA. This project improved on the fine motor skills of the robotic avatar: AILA can even send sensory feedback to the wearer of the CAPIO exoskeleton. The ideal test would involve sending AILA to the International Space Station and testing the remote connection from the planet’s surface.
All this research, development, and investment indicates that wearables are seen as the way forward for space exploration, at least until it can be made safer for humans. But even with improvements, wearables will likely still be an invaluable resource for exploring the true unknown, as we venture deeper and further into space.