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Imagine putting on a special suit. You raise your arm, pick up a screw and fix it into place. With a time lag of a few seconds, the precise action you have just performed on earth will be repeated in space – on the Moon, for instance: a robot follows your movements on earth and fixes a screw into place on the Moon. This is also one of the applications for a key field of research in the area of driverless vehicles.
Robots convey human movements
Admittedly, you won’t find this high-tech suit on sale in any department store (just yet). Indeed, experts do not describe it as a suit but rather as an “exoskeleton”, a wearable robot which a person can don. It conveys the human movements to another system.
The exoskeleton is part of the “TransTerrA” project being carried out at the Robotics Innovation Center of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) at its Bremen facility. Supported by the space agency of the German Aerospace Centre (DLR)with funding from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi), the scientists will be working on special robotic systems until the end of April 2017. The idea is for the technologies and solutions to be able to move autonomously and perform tasks on distant planets or moons.
Autonomous systems are preparing the next journey to the Moon
“We are developing systems that will allow robots to prepare humankind’s next journey to the Moon”, says Jens Mey, research department manager at the DFKI. Manned missions to celestial bodies such as the Moon or Mars have to be preceded by robot missions. As well as exploring the terrain there, such missions are used to make the logistical and infrastructural preparations for the astronauts. “When humans next set foot on the Moon, a robot is to open the door to them, symbolically speaking”, explains Jens Mey. In addition, the autonomous systems are supposed to send information back about the evolution of our solar system.
The concept that the DFKI researchers are working on comprises not only the exoskeleton, but also a number of other components:
- a lander to transport the robot systems to the Moon
- a rover vehicle equipped with a robotic arm which performs the movements made by the exoskeleton
- a shuttle to ensure communication between the lander and the rover
- a “walking system” which can build infrastructure such as buildings on the Moon and can also move across difficult terrain
One thing that is particularly fascinating is that the rover gives physical feedback to the person wearing the exoskeleton: if it bumps into an object, the person back on earth will feel it too – and can adjust accordingly.
Applications on earth, too
The research project is of interest not only in terms of exploring moons and planets. “We are also keen to discover whether and how the technologies can be transferred to other areas”, explains Mey. Autonomous robotic systems could be put to very good use in the area of emergency management, for example, being used after an avalanche to navigate the terrain by remote control, or to carry away rubble following a fire.
As Mey points out, it will not be long before exoskeletons are used in medicine, helping for example stroke patients to move actively again.
Eco-friendly retrieval of resources from the seabed
These technologies are also popular in the deep sea, where they help for example to gather manganese nodules. These fist-size nodules weigh about a pound and comprise mainly manganese and iron oxides, and are of interest to the electronics and steel refining industries on account of their copper, nickel and cobalt content. These raw materials are used for example in the electronics industry to produce smartphones and tablets. Remote-controlled underwater robots can collect them ecologically and efficiently.
“Obviously the technologies cannot always be transferred one-to-one to other applications. Robotic systems used in the water have to be watertight, whereas in space it is more a question of their being able to withstand changes in pressure”, explains Mey.
Whether in medicine, in the sea or in space: as far as Jens Mey is concerned, the TransTerrA project is proof that Germany is at the forefront of research when it comes to developing autonomous systems. “We are recognized worldwide as experts in this field.”