Aldo Spadoni

Jun 8th 2018

Robotic Space Exploration Enhanced by Virtual Reality


As humanity’s presence in space continues to expand in the coming decades, the nature of space-based operations will become more extensive and complex. Recent advances in virtual reality (VR) systems and teleoperation technologies are exciting for the future of robotic space exploration.

“The most recent footprints on the moon are 40 years old, and the next artificial mark on the lunar surface will probably be made by a robot’s wheels rather than human soles,” said Wired. As our involvement in space grows, there will be an increasing need for systems capable of performing a variety of operations, such as robotic space exploration, surveying, data gathering and much more.

There is speculation about whether or not future space operations will involve direct human presence. “Humans can do great things while in space, but having the assistance of a robot can not only advance future exploration, it can also lead to great things back on Earth,” said NASA. Remotely-located robots will operate semi-autonomously under human supervision, or be directly teleoperated.

Space Jobs for Video Gamers

Future space operations will demand more than standard two-dimensional computer displays and interfaces. Advances in VR systems and teleoperation technologies will improve the ability of humans to remotely control a variety of complex robotic operations in space.

MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) recently presented a VR system allowing robot teleoperation using an Oculus Rift headset, which “embeds the user in a VR control room with multiple sensor displays, making it feel like they’re inside the robot’s head. By using hand controllers, users can match their movements to the robot’s movements to complete various tasks,” according to MIT News.

“‘A system like this could eventually help humans supervise robots from a distance,'” said Jeffrey Lipton, a CSAIL postdoctoral student.

Unsurprisingly, those test users with video gaming experience were much more at ease using the system. It is imagined that gamifying future VR teleoperations will make them more accessible to and usable by future operators, said MIT News.

The Challenge of Proximity

Consider the difficulty of conducting teleoperated robotic space exploration on a remote planet or moon. Depending on where you are in space, the vast distances involved can make real-time communications and control from Earth impossible.

Real-time teleoperations are almost entirely limited by the speed of light and the communications latency resulting from large distances. Commands sent to a Mars rover can take as long as 21 minutes to arrive.

As VR and teleoperation technologies continue to advance, NASA is exploring these limits to determine how far an operator can be from a robot and not be significantly impacted by latency. With advanced telepresence, robotic space exploration could be conducted effectively from a distance of many thousands of miles with high human operator cognition. For example, some lunar operations might be controlled by Earth-based users in real time, aided by sophisticated predictive algorithms and displays that will help the users to at least partially overcome the effects of this communications latency.

Beyond the Moon

What about robotic space exploration beyond the moon?

NASA hopes to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, but first they must figure out how to safely transport humans to and from the Martian surface. However, some mission architectures are being explored that would bring humans into orbit around Mars without landing them on the surface, at least initially, and at far less cost. These human teleoperators could safely manage an army of surface robots from Mars’ orbit in real time, to explore, survey and build the infrastructure for eventual human settlement.

This mission architecture opens up some exciting possibilities. A similar approach could one day be used to explore the extremely inhospitable surface of Venus in real time from orbit, using specially hardened robots designed to operate in its harsh environment.