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Partners: NASA, UWA

Exploring with Remote Operations

Remote operations technology enables us to communicate with, control and provide oversight for robotics systems at vast distances. Advancements in this technology continually push the boundaries of how far we can explore. Researchers at the University of Western Australia (UWA), within the Faculty of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, are preparing to test a robot in Antarctica. The robot will have the ability to conduct a series of tests on its watery environment, including searching for signs of life. If successful, it may be deployed on a deep-space mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

The program is being conducted by the Australian Antarctic Program and NASA. The robot itself must survive the pressures and cold temperatures of deep water – and be able to communicate through ice of potentially up to 20 kilometres thick. Figuring out how to drill through that much ice marks a unique challenge for engineers and scientists.

The problem highlights one of the quintessential dilemmas of space exploration: that no one quite knows what the landscape will be like when we get there. Of course, by ‘we’, scientists mean humans that are vicariously present through the implementation of robots. If the robots encounter unpredicted terrain, they must possess the ability to adapt and be flexible (human traits), which will also require state-of-the-art software and an automatic capability to ‘think’. The UWA robot itself is a buoyant rover with two independent wheels to maneuver along the underside of the ice. This is an example of how the unique operating environment demands a novel design, creating knowledge, as we continue to disrupt conventional thinking around the way we design for purpose.

Our beloved robots carry the human spirit across the solar system, to inhabitable locations. Particular robots spring to mind, such as the likes of Pathfinder and Curiosity on Mars, coupled with discoveries from the New Horizons spacecraft which allowed us to see Pluto in all its distant majesty. They bring with them the crucial equipment to communicate back to Earth. The ability for them to do so is mission-critical; humans cannot learn about our solar system without robust and reliable communications.

If we expand our definition of robotics, to that of remote operations, we now consider the possibility of human-inhabited outposts and someday, colonies on the Moon and Mars. The methods by which we attend to these platforms is provided by technology directly relating to the field of remote operations. The challenge of the next decade will be to aggregate the suite of technologies that enable the control, management and logistics of these platforms (including habitats, infrastructure, and resourcing sites) to give humans a sustained presence beyond Earth.

The technology developed to achieve these goals will help us improve industrial processes on Earth and enrich our quality of life with the expertise we gain along the way. Likewise, the technology we create for Earth processes may be relevant to our aspirations in space. Space engineering requires precision and innovation; the harsh environments of space create some of the toughest challenges, requiring us to build upon what we thought of as previously possible.

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