Space, Physics, and Math

To Mars, without leaving the couch

A competition to develop robot avatars for earthbound tasks could someday lead to virtual space travel

December 3, 2018
illustrations of 12 robot faces in a grid
Robot avatars may one day serve as human “surrogates,” participating in their operators’ daily lives. [Credit: Mohit Tomar | CC BY 2.0]

What if you could be in two places at once — and one of them was Mars? With avatar robots, you could feel like you’re out of this world without ever leaving the comfort of Earth. A new competition’s sponsors are betting $10 million that engineers can get closer than ever to making science fiction a reality in the next few years.

The ANA Avatar XPRIZE, currently open for registration, aims to spur the development of just such a technology. Teams developing avatars operated remotely using sight, hearing and touch will compete in a pair of million-dollar milestone competitions over the next few years, before ultimately battling it out for an $8 million purse in 2022. Sending these surrogate bodies into space may not be practical for many years, but in the meantime, organizers are hoping to use them for earthbound applications like navigating disaster scenes.

Physical avatars can help connect people around the world, explained Amir Banifatemi, an engineer leading the competition. “The very possibility of placing ourselves somewhere else in the world creates so many new opportunities,” he wrote in an email.

Human-like robots, operated remotely, are already a booming field. “I think it’s one of the most important robotic technologies,” said Cong Wang, an engineering professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “I do think it’s going to be one of the keys that is going to revolutionize robotics.”

Wang envisions logging into robots as “surrogates” for social activities such as daily interactions with people, and getting robot operator’s licenses from robot driving schools. And as more time passes, things will get freakier. Wang predicts these surrogates will eventually accumulate enough intelligence and data about human senses to act physically and intellectually independent of humans.

The technology is advancing quickly. A group of researchers in South Korea is already at work matching robot arm movements to human arm movements to engineer a more interactive and intuitive operating experience. Their robot’s cameras send visuals to the human operator, who wears special vibrating gloves to sense the force the robot exerts. “The robot follows my movement, and I can see the visions around the robot wherever I rotate my head. It feels like I’m [in] the remote site where the robot is,” one of the Korean engineers, Joonbum Bae of the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, wrote in an email. Sometimes, Bae says, he even feels like he is the robot. The Korean team does not have plans to participate in the XPRIZE at this time, but recently published their work in the journal Mechatronics.

Even if avatars become ubiquitous on Earth, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll work in space. Terry Fong, the chief roboticist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, likened operating robots on Mars to operating a remote-control car — except you have to wait 20 to 40 minutes for the car to respond to each command. On Earth or even the Moon, such time delays are slight. But the further the distance, the longer it would take for the robot to receive an Earth-based command, he explained.

Cosmic rays, which can break down electronic equipment, represent another hurdle for space-based robotics, Fong said. There might be lots of great technology available off the shelf here on Earth, but it takes a lot of engineering to prepare it for the harsh environment of space. Most people carry cell phones with hundreds to thousands of times the processing power on board your typical spacecraft, Fong said as an example.

Still, he’s not complaining. “Part of the attraction for people working on space projects is because it’s such a unique problem and because it is really challenging,” Fong said.

Another challenge is cost. NASA, which is not participating in the Avatar XPRIZE, operates missions that cost hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. XPRIZE leaders like Banifatemi see their project as a step toward a world where a wider variety of people might be able to afford a taste of space, even if only through a surrogate. “With a better understanding of how avatars can live with and around us, we will be in a better position to understand what form and type, and at what price points models need to be designed and created,” he wrote.

None of these problems deter contest sponsor All Nippon Airways, which has partnered with the Japanese space agency to explore the development of space avatars. Banifatemi explained that the XPRIZE has an advisory role in this partnership, with the organizations working together to “transport a human’s senses, actions and presence to a remote location anytime, anywhere.” In space, avatars could help construct projects on Mars, operate space stations and make space entertainment and travel available to the mass public.

Banifatemi asserts that the technology already exists to make avatars a daily reality, and sees the XPRIZE as a way to start preparing for that future today. “Having a chance to evaluate how Avatars can be integrated in our daily lives needs to happen now to bring context,” he wrote.

About the Author

Dani Leviss

Dani Leviss is a NJ-based science writer interested in the environment, chemistry, space, and diversity in STEM. Previously, she wrote for IEEE Earthzine and produced a 5-minute science podcast.


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