One small step for man as astronaut controls robot from space

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NOORDWIJK, NETHERLANDS: European experts have pulled off a major advance that might one day help build new worlds in space after an astronaut in the International Station Station remotely guided a robot on Earth by feel.

Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen performed the breath-taking experiment in which he placed a peg into a very tight hole on Monday under the careful control of the European Space Agency.

While orbiting some 400 kilometres (250 miles) above Earth, Mogensen took control of the Interact Centaur rover which has a pair of arms for delicate, high-precision work.

The blue-and-white fibreglass robot, which cost less than 200,000 euros ($224,000) to build, also has a camera on its head which allows the controller to directly see the task it is performing.

But sight is not the most important sense in this project. It is touch.

In real-time, thanks to super swift signals bouncing off a dedicated complex system of satellites working in synchronisation, the astronaut manoeuvered the robot into place.

He then very slowly lowered a metal pin held by the robot into a tight hole in a task board with less than a sixth of a millimetre of wriggle room.

For the first time — thanks to force-feedback technology — when the pin was not aligned correctly Mogensen felt it hit the sides of the hole via the joystick he was operating on the space station.

Cheers erupted when after several long nail-biting minutes the rover — which slightly resembles Disney’s WALL.E cartoon character — dropped the pin successfully into place.

Scientists and engineers believe applications of this kind of tactile technology are huge — allowing humans to guide robots in delicate tasks by feeling their way.

The technology will allow people “to project a human-like presence into the robots, to do human-like tasks on the surface” of a planet, Andre Schiele, head of ESA’s Telerobotics and Haptics Laboratory, told AFP.

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