ESA Makes Robotics History With Rock Sampling Gripper Controlled from Space

An astronaut was able to control a rock-sampling rover, all the way from the International Space Station.

ESA made robotics history when the agency controlled an Earth-based rover all the way from the International Space Station. The agency took charge of a gripper that possessed the dexterity of a human hand and used it to pick up rock samples from an environment simulating lunar conditions. 

Called the Analog-1 test project, the task was performed by ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano. The goal was to evaluate if this technology could allow for high-precision robotic control in weightless conditions.

“Imagine the robot as Luca’s avatar on Earth, providing him with both vision and touch,” said ESA engineer Kjetil Wormnes, heading the Analog-1 test campaign. “It was equipped with two cameras – one in the palm of its hand, the other in a maneuverable arm – to let Luca and the remotely-located scientists observe the environment and get a close-up on the rocks.”

The project was a success with the Luca-controlled rover completing its sampling campaign on schedule. To do so, the rover had to go through three sampling sites while Luca received input from geological experts based at the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Germany.

“We benefitted from Luca’s previous training through our Pangaea program, giving astronauts practical experience in geology,” added Jessica Grenouilleau, Meteron project lead at ESA’s Exploration Systems Group. “It helped tremendously in having an efficient discussion between the crew and the scientists.”

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