Robotics is a key component in space travel because it provides an alternative to manned missions in an extremely hostile environment to humans. Whether it’s using a remote-controlled crane to launch a satellite from a cargo bay, or a robotic arm to make repairs on the exterior hull of the International Space Station (ISS), robots make it possible without risking the lives of astronauts.
While the execution of these tasks might look easy, countless hours of research and development has gone into them. The latest research is taking place at the European Space Agency (ESA) for helping to improve robotic rendezvous methods.
The agency has created a free app to let owners of the Parrot AR.Drone quadcopters control the device so they can gather data to teach robots to navigate their respective environments.
The iPhone controlled home-drone docks with a simulated International Space Station (ISS), while the owner flies the drone in real life. Each attempt from the user gives researchers a new set of data to analyze how and why the action made in that instance is used to dock with the station. The more people use the game, the more data that is generated, which goes into creating robots capable of making decisions based on thousands, if not millions of possibilities generated through this application.
Crowdsourcing using mobile devices for scientific applications is giving researchers a new resource, which previously would have taken the power and expense of supercomputers. The AstroDrone app is a crowdsourcing project by the Advanced Concepts Team at the European Space Agency to gather information so robots can be taught how to navigate their environment.
“People intuitively assess their position and motion in relation to their surroundings in various ways, based on what they see before them. This new app lets us crowdsource examples of this process in practice, as a first step to reproducing it with artificial intelligence. For ESA, the result could be much more autonomous spacecraft that can reliably maneuver, dock or land themselves,” explained team research fellow, Guido de Croon.
This type of research is generally very expensive, reserved for countries with large military budgets for creating drones and other robotic military applications. As Leopold Summerer, head of the Advanced Concepts Team, noted, “For ESA, this development opens up completely new ways of involving the public in scientific experiments. We can obtain real-life data to train our algorithms in large amounts that would practically be impossible to get in any other way.”
The reason the AR.Drone was chosen is because around half a million have been sold since it was introduced by the Parrot Company in 2010 in France. The drone is equipped with two cameras, and it flies with four rotors controlled by an iPhone or other iOS device.
The large number of ownership and imaging capabilities makes it an ideal product for a crowdsourcing project.
Participants form the landings with the AstronDrone in an augmented reality platform, through a real-world feature that serves as the space station docking port. The user then tries to make a landing on a graphical representation in a rapid but controlled manner.
Points are given for correct orientation and low speed upon final approach.
Anyone interested can contribute to the experiments by going online and having fun with the application, while greatly helping researchers with space exploration.
Edited by Braden Becker