When space equipment fails, astronauts sometimes have to be sent on expensive and dangerous repair missions. At Britain's Culham Laboratory, scientists are laying the groundwork for an alternative: remote-controlled space robots, which someday might maintain space equipment. One of the technical limits to be overcome, however, is the five-second time delay in sending instructions from earth to the robot via satellite.
With funding from the European Space Agency, the Culham scientists have developed new computer-graphics software that allows ground controllers to overcome this time lag by anticipating the robot's next move. Project engineer Mark A. Allington says the team has built a prototype workstation with simulated communications time delays. The software projects two images of the robot -- the actual one and the one predicted after the time delay -- onto the computer screen. Using a joystick, the ground operator can direct the robot to perform primitive servicing tasks such as unscrewing fittings. Space robots are years away, but Allington says this software may be applied to other jobs for remote-controlled robots such as underwater repairs to offshore oil rigs or work in highly radioactive areas in nuclear plants.