Multiple partner nations involved on the International Space Station are developing robots in space. 

Photo Credit: Jacques van Oene / SpaceFlight Insider

On Monday, Sept. 7, Danish European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Andreas Mogensen,  for the first time, performed a groundbreaking space experiment called Interact. Interact was developed by ESA/ESTEC Telerobotics & Haptics Lab in close collaboration with the Technical University of Delft’s Robotics Institute.

ESA’s Telerobotics & Haptics Lab consists of a small, but highly dynamic, team of engineers and engineering academics. Led by Dr. André Schiele, Associate Professor at the Delft University of Technology.

Andreas Mogensen was launched aboard the Soyuz TMA-18M last Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. He and fellow Expedition 45 crewmates Aidyn Aimbetov and Sergei Volkov (of Roscosmos) docked Friday morning with the Space Station.

During his short-duration mission, Mogensen will take the controls of the Interact rover from his position on the ISS in real time with force feedback.

If everything goes as planned, the Interact rover will drive around the grounds of ESA’s ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

Mogensen will test the Interact rover three times from his position on the orbiting laboratory next Monday. The first test is set to begin at 14:00 CET (13:00 GMT) and will be a science run on stiffness discrimination. It should last for approximately 30 minutes.

Then, at around 16:00 CET, Andreas will control the rover and perform a sub-millimeter precision task; this test is scheduled to last for about one hour. The final task planned for Monday will start around 18:50 CET and Mogensen will then try to do a peg-in-hole task; this test is also scheduled for about one hour.

On board the ISS, Andreas Mogensen will re-use equipment from the previous Telerobotics & Haptics Lab experiments called Haptics-1 and Haptics-2. For these experiments, a tablet PC and a small force-reflective joystick were flown to the ISS with the goal of evaluating human haptic perception in space.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the Interact rover has two KUKA lightweight robotic arms on the front allowing the operator (in this case an astronaut) to perform very precise manipulation tasks. The arms can be soft-controlled to interact safely with humans or delicate structures. The arms are equipped with highly sensitive force sensors and can flex and adapt in a similar manner to human arms during remote control. This allows tight-coupling of those arms to an operator located far away by means of force-transmitting interfaces.

This interaction could make remote operations possible to take place across very long distances with the finest amount of force feedback to the operator despite the communication time delay.

The Interact rover also has four real-time streaming cameras that Mogensen can use from the ISS. A head pan-tilt camera should provide him with a general contextual overview of the situation during driving and exploration of the environment. A tool camera mounted on the robotic right arm for vision during precise tool manipulation. And two hazard cameras (front and back) to view the proximity area of the rover during driving.

A complicating factor is the signals between the astronaut and the Interact rover; they must travel via a dedicated and highly complex network of satellites in geosynchronous orbit. The signals will travel from the ISS via NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) to ground facilities in the U.S. From there, they cross the Atlantic Ocean to the ESTEC facilities in Noordwijk, in the Netherlands.

Forces between the robot and its environment, as well as video and status data, travel back to the graphical user interface and the haptic joystick Mogensen is using aboard the station. In this round-trip, all signals cover a distance of nearly 55,923 miles (90,000 km). The resulting round trip time delay is just one second in length.

Story by Jaques van Oene from