Commentary | Exploration Telerobotics — A Symposium
What do deep-sea operations, surgery, mining, drone piloting and even office management have to do with space exploration? What is the relationship of human spaceflight to human space exploration? What is the importance of “being there” for science and development in space? These questions were deliberated at the first Exploration Telerobotics Symposium, held May 2-3 at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. I was a co-organizer of the symposium, along with Azita Valinia, associate director of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; Harley Thronson, senior scientist for advanced concepts in astrophysics at Goddard; and George Schmidt, deputy director of research and technology at NASA Glenn Research Center.
This meeting brought together almost a hundred largely senior members of the planetary science, robotics and human spaceflight communities, as well as representatives of terrestrial telerobotic pursuits. Participants came from NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, as well as industry and academia. This extraordinarily diverse group had one thing in common — an intense interest in putting human “presence” at places where it was hard, or at least inconvenient, to put humans.
The motivation for this symposium was the recognition that placing humans at important exploration destinations, such as the Moon and Mars, involves putting them into deep gravity wells, adding significant cost and risk to the enterprise. In addition to transportation (descent/ascent), these gravity wells can be troublesome from a thermal, power and contamination management perspective. While any goal of settlement and colonization will eventually require putting humans in these places, pioneering efforts to learn about them, and exercising our capabilities in them, may not.
We understood from the outset that the purpose of this symposium was not to debate the relative benefits of humans and robots, but to assess strategies for optimal partnerships between them and identifying synergies. As pointed out in these pages several months ago [“Telepresence from Orbit,” Commentary, Nov. 7, 2011, page 19], communication latency is the bane of Earth-bound control of deep-space robots. For preliminary reconnaissance, such latencies (two-way light-times of up to almost an hour for Mars) are tolerable, but putting true human cognition at exploration sites, and achieving virtual presence for humans at those sites, is seriously handicapped by these time delays. To mitigate these delays, it is essential for humans to at least get close to the exploration site — for example, in orbit around it — if not quite all the way there. Once that happens, with telerobotic technology that can extend their senses and dexterity to that site, those humans are as much in command of that environment as if they were there.
Do we have such telerobotic technology? We believe we do. Contemporary terrestrial telerobotics provide convincing examples of these capabilities. Although these capabilities are only recently available, they are improving at a dramatic rate. Forty years ago, when NASA wanted to put human cognition on the Moon, there was only one way to do it — by putting human boots on the ground. We did that. We now have other ways to put human cognition there.
The Exploration Telerobotics Symposium took a full day for plenary talks and panel discussions with science and technology experts to understand the challenges, opportunities and even the definition of telepresence. These presentations (with video) are archived at the symposium website — http://telerobotics.gsfc.nasa.gov/. The participants discussed how science and development were impacted by having human cognition on site, current telerobotic technology and future prospects, and the relevance of terrestrial telerobotic technologies to applications in space.
The second day was composed of breakout sessions that focused on science opportunities — priority goals in science that were enabled or enhanced by telepresence, and technology challenges — capabilities required to enable telepresence, as well as the relation of telepresence to human spaceflight. The goal of these breakout sessions was to produce draft findings that would, over the following weeks, be distilled and summarized for a public report. While a summary of the symposium was delivered May 23 at the Global Space Exploration Conference, work on the final report is ongoing. A number of preliminary findings from the symposium are already noteworthy.
As the participants assessed telepresence, it was recognized that the highest-quality telepresence requires not only low communication latency but also high bandwidth. For example, the human eye has been estimated to operate at 10 megabits per second. But while communication bandwidth is always expandable, latency is limited by distance.
The importance of social dynamics in exploration by telepresence was discussed. For the Mars Exploration Rovers, the science “backroom” was key to successful mission planning and response. For exploration by telepresence, how are cognitive responsibilities best shared by a very few astronauts close to the exploration site, with a vastly larger number of engineers and scientists farther away?
The importance of human cognition to what is called “field science” was considered profoundly important. This is an activity that can be summarized inelegantly as “walking-around science” wherein questions are developed and attacked in real time. Such efforts as sampling, inspection and rudimentary assaying could be carried out much more efficiently in this way, as could detailed site surveys and reconnaissance. This is largely how terrestrial geology is done. Participants noted, however, that although our experience in terrestrial field geology is vast, there is little or no experience doing it telerobotically.
Having human cognition on site also could be of great importance to site development — for example, for in-situ resource utilization and in activities to prepare for eventual stationing of humans on site. While the several seconds of communication latency to the Moon from the Earth might be manageable, albeit inefficient, the much larger latencies to asteroids and Mars are hugely inconvenient. Using the Moon to demonstrate technologies and operations protocols for these more distant sites would be very advantageous.
Finally, some symposium participants pointed out that we should be careful about any assertion that better “presence” is necessarily linked to better performance. Communication latency can, in principle, be used for better decision making and planning. This may call for development of a triage strategy of which functions are best done more locally and which might be better done remotely.
In many respects, telepresence is a strategy that challenges traditional definitions of exploration. Can we be explorers without actually setting foot at an exploration site? The space science community is comfortable with such a premise, though control of robotic assets from Earth involves serious cognitive compromises. It was clear to the symposium participants that exploration by telepresence established clear synergy between robotics and human spaceflight, and had a strong generational grounding. The “wired” generation may be far more accepting of such a strategy than an older generation. The purpose of the Exploration Telerobotics Symposium was to formally start the assessment of space telepresence as an achievable approach to exploration, one that could be an important component of future human spaceflight.
Dan Lester is an astronomer at the University of Texas working with NASA on cis-lunar operations on behalf of science and exploration.