As NASA prepares to send humans back to the Moon and beyond with Project Artemis, the iconic space firm has been seeking the help of other companies to develop technologies for its ambitious space exploration plans.
One such collaboration, with the SETI Institute and Ntention, is developing a smart glove that will allow astronauts to easily fly drones and other robotic vehicles in space. It is aimed at overcoming the obstructive nature of bulky spacesuits.
Controlling a fleet of robotic vehicles
The NASA Haughton-Mars Project (HMP), in collaboration with the SETI Institute, Mars Institute, NASA Ames Research Center, Collins Aerospace, and Ntention, announced the successful field test of an “astronaut smart glove” for future human exploration of the cosmos.
The smart glove is a prototype for a human-machine interface (HuMI) that would use hand tracking to let astronauts wirelessly operate a fleet of robotic vehicles, including drones, via hand gestures.
The dexterous design will make it easier for astronauts to collect samples manually as well as with the aid of robotic vehicles.
A solution to cumbersome spacesuits
NASA is planning to return to the Moon by 2024 with its Artemis Program, which will also eventually send humans to Mars. Both missions will use a greater amount of surface extra-vehicular activities (EVAs) when compared with the Apollo missions.
While spacesuits are getting more nimble, controlling devices and collecting samples out in space still proves cumbersome.
“A smart glove-equipped spacesuit could be a solution,” Dr. Pascal Lee, director of the NASA Haughton-Mars Project, said in a press release. “With it, astronauts could easily control a range of robotic assets, making science and exploration operations on the Moon, Mars and at other destinations more effective and productive”.
The smart glove uses a micro-controller to read different kinds of sensors. These sensors capture subtle motions of the hand, including finger movements, and wirelessly transfers these to a device that controls the drone or any other robot.
The hand-tracking smart device was integrated into an existing Collins Aerospace concept spacesuit, also designed as part of the Artemis program.
Field tests in Mars-like conditions
In order to test the potentially Mars-bound glove, the researchers opted for a place often referred to as "Mars on Earth."
The NASA Haughton-Mars Project is located at the Haughton meteorite impact crater, and its surrounding terrain, on Devon Island in the High Arctic. It is one of the most Mars-like places on Earth.
Ntention, formerly Arveng Technologies, developed the smart glove technology, which was tested on Devon Island at this year’s HMP-2019 summer field campaign.
“Our philosophy is to create technology that makes human-machine interfacing intuitive and seamless,” Moina Medboe Tamuly, COO and co-founder of Ntention, said in the press release.
“Now, we are excited to see that our technology has potential applications in space exploration.”
"Indistinguishable from magic"
“When I first saw Ntention’s smart glove in action, I immediately thought of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” remembers Lee.
“A pressurized spacesuit is relatively rigid, and hand and finger motions meet with substantial resistance. In the “Astronaut Smart Glove,” the sensitivity of hand motions is adjustable and can be set high, which means the technology might be adaptable to a stiff pressurized spacesuit.”
This isn't the only collaboration NASA is taking part in to develop technologies fit for space exploration.
Back in August, it announced that, amongst other partnerships, it was teaming up with SpaceX to develop tech for refueling in space — allowing for a much further reach for its spacecraft.
If all goes according to plan with the Ntention smart gloves, astronauts in the far reaches of space will be able to nimbly explore their surroundings.