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JAXA Wants Telepresence Robots for In-Space Construction and Exploration

The AVATAR X program will send telepresence robots to the ISS and beyond

3 min read
MELTANT avatar robot
MELTANT avatar robot.
Image: Meltin via YouTube

Last Monday, we covered the new, updated, and way way better guidelines for the ANA Avatar XPRIZE. Since we were mostly talking with the folks over at XPRIZE, we didn’t realize that ANA (All Nippon Airways) is putting a massive amount of effort into this avatar concept— they’re partnering with JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, “to create a new space industry centered around real-world avatars.” 

AVATAR X aims to capitalize on the growing space-based economy by accelerating development of real-world Avatars that will enable humans to remotely build camps on the Moon, support long-term space missions and further explore space from afar.

These avatars will be essentially the same sorts of things that the Avatar XPRIZE is looking to advance: Robotic systems designed to operate with a human in the loop through immersive telepresence, allowing them to complete tasks like a human could without a human needing to be physically there.

JAXA says that they’re interested in the usual stuff, like remote construction in space and maintenance, but also in “space-based entertainment and travel for the general public,” so use your imagination on that one. The AVATAR X program will go through several different phases, beginning quite sensibly with some Earth-based testing, which will happen at a new lab to be built in what looks like an artificial impact crater, with a futuristic building somehow hovering in the middle of it:

ANA AVATAR Image: Clouds Architecture Office

Of course, JAXA is not alone with this telepresence robots in space idea—for years, NASA has been suggesting that Valkyrie-like robots (likely controlled through a combination of full teleop, assistive teleop, and autonomy) are the best way to get stuff done in space, or in other places where humans are too expensive and squishy. Here’s a NASA rendering, for example:

NASA Valkyrie-like robot A Valkyrie-like robot performing maintenance tasks. Image: NASA

That’s probably a bit far into the future, but in the nearer term, Robonaut was also intended to take over routine space station tasks. Things are maybe not moving quite as quickly as NASA has been hoping, but rumor has it that there will be a follow-up Space Robotics Challenge happening at some point. At the pace ANA and JAXA are going, though, it’s looking like the plan is to have operational hardware on the ISS within the next several years, which could mean that Robonaut (if, once repaired, it returns to the ISS) will have a robotic buddy up there to help it get some useful work done.

The actual schedule for Avatar X is a little bit unclear— there’s supposed to be on-Earth hardware testing in 2019, testing on the ISS in “202X,” and then the Moon and Mars “in the future.” What we do know is that one of the companies involved, Meltin, has already commenced “full-scale development on the MELTANT avatar robot for deployment in space.” MELTANT is this shiny-headed dude:

Be it in space, on the moon’s surface, or on the surface of mars, long-distance remote control robots like MELTANT will protect astronauts from the dangers of space while lowering the high cost of space missions. It will bring about improvements in safety, efficiency, and cost effectiveness to contribute to the advancement of space technology and the creation of usable regions in space.

Here’s a sampling of what MELTANT is supposed to be able to do:

  • At the space station (in low Earth orbit or while orbiting the moon)
    • Supporting the lives of astronauts (by growing food, cooking, cleaning, etc.)
    • Conducting scientific experiments
    •  Conducting all types of internal on-board maintenance
  • In space hotels
    • Assisting hotel operators with tasks (producing food, cooking, cleaning, etc.)
    •  Providing all types of service to hotel guests
  • Services in Orbit
    • Constructing large-scale satellites and space probes in Earth’s orbit
    • Refueling, servicing, and repairing satellites in Earth’ orbit
  • At a lunar/Mars base
    • Building a base and doing maintenance on rovers and all other types of other equipment
    • Conducting dangerous operations in exposed environments outside of the base
    • Supporting the lives of people living there (by growing food, cooking, cleaning, etc.)
    • Providing long-distance medical care (diagnosis, treatment, surgery)
    • Conducting scientific experiments
    • Providing long-distance moon experiences and more

So far, all of this is speculative, and MELTANT will need to prove itself here on Earth before proving itself anywhere else. As with all of these sorts of things, big ideas are easy, but getting robots to execute on them is hard. We’re glad that JAXA and ANA are putting some muscle behind this, and we’ll be tracking their progress carefully over the coming years.

[ JAXA ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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