The ESA has announced that it has made a breakthrough that has allowed an astronaut orbiting on the ISS 400km above the earth to control a rover on the ground with precision. Astronaut Andreas Mogensen remotely operated a rover and its robotic arm using a force-feedback control system that was developed by the ESA.
This special control system allowed the astronaut to feel when the flexible arm of the rover met resistance. The tactile sensations made it possible for the astronaut to place a metal peg in a round hole cut into a task board with less than a sixth of a millimeter of clearance. That peg needed to be inserted 4cm to make an electrical connection.
This would be a very easy task for someone standing right next to the task board, but doing it while orbiting 400km away is a difficult task and opens the door for rovers of the future to be able to perform much more difficult missions than they can today. The astronaut was able to complete this task the first time he controlled the rover.
The task required 45 minutes for the rover to reach the task board and then insert the pin. Inserting the pin was completed on the first attempt and follow-up attempts took only ten minutes to complete. Researchers working in the project used special software to compensate for the delay of up to one second for signals to travel the distance from the controller to the rover. Similar controls may allow operators to control dexterous robots on missions of the future.