Massive joystick will let astronauts control robots in space

Credit: ESA

Robots will certainly be useful in the future here on Earth, but they're also making their way up into space. Space, being space, has challenging conditions (like, you know, lack of air) that make some jobs impossible for humans, which is why we're increasingly relying on robots. From exploring the surfaces of planets to handling repairs on spaceships, we’re already seeing robots taking over on the Moon, on Mars, and even on the International Space Station. Some of these robots require human control, but the lack of gravity in space can make things tricky, so the European Space Agency designed a wearable joystick for robot control that ISS astronauts will soon be testing.

Designed for use in space, the joystick resembles an old-school Pong game controller. This joystick, though, has a complex system of sturdy motors designed to work in extreme conditions and features technology that provides sensory feedback to astronauts using it. This feedback is crucial, because when an astronaut controls a robot, the astronaut needs to feel what the robot is doing. For example, if the robot is collecting samples of rocks on a planet’s surface, the astronaut needs to "feel" how to pick those rocks up. In microgravity, this force feedback could push an astronaut around, so the joystick is mounted to a harness worn by the astronaut, which can be clipped to a wall.

Tests of the joystick will have ISS astronauts playing computer games. Not only will the performance readings of these games be recorded, but astronauts will also be questioned about their overall experiences with the joystick. There will also be studies about how easy the joystick is to control by people who might have less motor control due to long-term exposure to weightlessness, with an eye towards the amount of time it will take humans to get to Mars and beyond.


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