Published: Jan. 30, 2018 By

Two students with their telerobotic modelHumans have already been to the moon—and will likely return—but engineering undergraduates Benjamin Mellinkoff and Matthew Spydell have their eyes set on an even bigger challenge: helping humans explore the entire solar system with the aid of robotic partners.

Mellinkoff and Spydell work in a NASA-funded telerobotics lab at CU Boulder with a focus on using telerobotics to someday explore the solar system.

Since humans are going back to the moon, researchers are transitioning into an era of space exploration that features a human-robotic partnership. The telerobotics research being conducted by Mellinkoff and Spydell will be a part of this endeavor.

Landing humans on the surface of a planet or the moon is challenging and expensive, while landing robots is cheaper. Low-latency telerobotics is a way of communicating remotely with robots. Latency is the delay in communication between two points. In space exploration, communication delays result from large distances, such as between Earth and a space station. Low-latency telerobotics is a method of controlling robotic assets while providing instant feedback to human operators.

Telerobotics is already used in various ways on Earth, such as telemedicine, where minimally invasive surgery can be performed by a doctor using a robotic surgical system remotely controlled from a console.

The students’ research contributes to the effectiveness of directing robots from a space habitat above the lunar surface by looking at the operational constraints associated with telerobotic assembly tasks.

“This type of technology can be used for a vast array of operations on a remote surface, like geological exploration,” said Mellinkoff, an aerospace engineering senior in the bachelor’s/master’s program. “We ran successful experiments on campus last year.”

Researchers must consider several factors when planning to use low-latency telerobotics for space exploration. The most important factor is that the new administration’s goal to return humans to deep space for space exploration and scientific discovery. As part of this goal, NASA plans to send the Deep Space Gateway (DSG) into lunar orbit. The DSG will serve as a habitation and work station for humans to conduct lunar and deep space science, so the DSG’s proximity to the lunar surface allows for humans to conduct low-latency telerobotic tasks.

Professor Jack Burns of the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences is their supervisor. He leads a research team that is part of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute. Burns’ research group, the Network for Exploration and Space Science (NESS), will help create observatories on the moon. One of the group’s goals is to deploy a low-frequency radio telescope on the lunar surface to learn about the universe as it existed when the first stars were born, between 80 million and 400 million years after the Big Bang.

In the early 2020s, NASA's Space Launch System and Lockheed Martin's Orion crew vehicle will begin launching humans to the moon to explore beyond the confines of low-Earth orbit by using the Deep Space Gateway stationed above the moon. Telerobotics will be crucial to the DSG’s success by enabling a cheaper method of conducting science on the lunar surface. Ultimately, one of the DSG’s main purposes is to enable new lunar science.

“The work we are doing is attempting to quantify the conditions required for effective teleoperation from the DSG,” Mellinkoff said. “We are trying to improve our understanding and limitations of this technology so that actual low-latency telerobotic missions conducted from the DSG will be successful.”

“When you’re at the Deep Space Gateway and operating a rover, there can be line-of-sight issues and the available bandwidth drop,” said Spydell, a senior in electrical and computer engineering. “We’re trying to find the threshold conditions necessary for effective exploration or assembly through video feedback.” 

Their research will contribute to the effectiveness and safety of directing robots from the Deep Space Gateway above the lunar surface. The project, if successful, could eventually lead to similar missions to explore other planets in the solar system.

Because of the success of their geological exploration experiments on campus, Mellinkoff and Spydell have been accepted to present their research at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers aerospace conference March 3-10 in Big Sky, Montana.

For more information about the research being conducted by Mellinkoff and Spydell and their crowdfunding project to raise funds to attend the IEEE conference, go to their low-latency telerobotics crowdfunding page