NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology

A novel remote control technology used by NASA scientists to guide a robot in a cross-country test will be turned over to private industry, it was announced today.

In the test, researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., used a new graphically oriented program to remotely control -- or "teleoperate" -- a robotic arm at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

The technology is being licensed to a private firm for commercial development, said Dr. Antal Bejczy, the experiment's technical manager at JPL. The firm's identity was not disclosed while negotiations were in progress.

Designed for free-flying robots that would service orbiting satellites, the technique also has many potential uses on Earth, according to Bejczy.

Possible applications include nuclear and other toxic waste site cleanup, decommissioning of hazardous facilities, special emergency medical operations, construction and building planning, and remotely operated highway maintenance.

In the experiment, a robotic arm equipped with a power screwdriver was placed in front of a mockup of a satellite at the Goddard center. The satellite was fitted with a replaceable module designed to be changed out by astronauts or robots.

The robot arm's job was to insert the screwdriver through a 45-centimeter-long (18-inch) hole to reach a latching mechanism that holds the replaceable module on the satellite, then to unlatch and remove the module. Finally, the robot arm was to place the new module on the satellite's frame and latch it in place.

Throughout the experiment, the arm was controlled by an operator thousands of kilometers away in California.

JPL researchers developed a software program that allow the remote operator to superimpose high-fidelity computer graphics models of the robot arm, screwdriver and satellite module onto television pictures of the live scene.

These synthetic TV camera views make visible critical motion events that are otherwise hidden from the operator in a normal TV camera view, said Bejczy.

"Thus the operator can generate and predict or preview the motions without commanding the actual hardware," said Bejczy. "Moreover, the operator can see the consequences of motion commands in real time, without time delay, through the simulation method overlaying the actual work scene."

After verifying an action of the robot arm and its result through the synthetic TV view, the operator then commands the robot arm and tool to actually execute the final action.

During the test, computer commands were sent from JPL to Goddard over the Internet computer network. TV views of the robot arm and satellite mockup were sent back to the JPL control station over NASA's satellite TV system.

"The module exchange task was originally designed to be performed by astronauts working in pressurized suits in the space shuttle's cargo bay," said Bejczy. "The success of the experiment shows that the same work can be done by robotic hardware controlled from Earth."

Bejczy also said that the graphics-based remote control technique will form the basis for new features added to commercially available computer graphics software packages.

JPL's work on the experiment was performed under contract to NASA's Office of Advanced Concepts and Technology, Washington, D.C.

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