ESA's orbital experiment with a force-reflecting joystick

January 6, 2015, European Space Agency
NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore operating ESA’s Haptics-1 force-feedback in weightlessness aboard the International Space Station on New Year's Eve 2014. By gathering information on physiological factors such as sensitivity of feeling and perception limits, the aim is to gather data guiding the design of future robotic control systems. The Haptics-1 experiment system was designed and built at the Telerobotics and Haptics Laboratory at ESA’s ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. Credit: ESA

In a milestone for space robotics, the International Space Station has hosted the first full run of ESA's experiment with a force-reflecting joystick.

Think of the kind of tasks you can do with your hands without looking down, such as typing or tying laces. These are helped by 'force feedback' – the touch you feel in your hands and fingertips.

Harnessing that sensation for robotics would extend the human sense of touch to space or other remote areas, making robotic control much more natural and easy.

Ultimately, robots could work thousands or tens of thousands of kilometres away, yet perform tasks of equal complexity to those a human operator could manage with objects immediately at hand.

NASA crewmember Barry Wilmore operated the force-feedback joystick to gather information on physiological factors such as sensitivity of feeling and perception limits. He finished a first run on New Year's Eve.

The deceptively simple-looking lever is connected to a servomotor that can withstand any force an astronaut operator might unleash on it, while generating forces that the astronaut will feel in turn – just like a standard video gaming joystick as a player encounters an in-game obstacle. The joystick measures such forces at a very high resolution.

Body-mounted astronaut joystick for the Haptics-1 experiment, developed by ESA’s Telerobotics and Haptics Laboratory as part of the multi-agency Meteron (Multi-Purpose End-to-End Robotic Operation Network) initiative, investigating telerobotics for space. Credit: ESA

To stop the weightless users being pushed around by the force, the 'Haptics-1' experiment can be mounted either to a body harness or be fixed to the Station wall.

"With Haptics-1 we are paving the way towards an entirely new type of combined human–robot mission," explains André Schiele, the experimenter and founder of ESA's Telerobotics and Haptics Laboratory.

"We are investigating in fine detail the limits of and ability to apply fine forces and manipulation with their limbs and hands in a .

"This allows us to understand the technology boundaries for advanced robotic equipment to support human astronauts in space when performing remote robotic control tasks.

"In addition to measuring physiological factors, Haptics-1 is providing important insights into how force-reflection from a remote robotic system changes human perception in space.

The Haptics-1 experiment – seen here during testing – comes down to a deceptively simple-looking lever that can be moved freely to play simple Pong-style computer games. Behind the scenes, a complex suite of servomotors can withstand any force an astronaut operator might unleash on it, while also generating forces that the astronaut will feel in turn, just like a standard video gaming joystick as a player encounters an in-game obstacle. Credit: ESA
"With these measurements, advanced robotic control equipment can be better designed to reflect the realities of human manipulation through a robotic interface in a weightless environment."

"Haptics-1 marks the first time a force-reflecting device has been used in space. Before today, ESA, NASA or any other spacefaring nation has gained such experience in this domain."

In future, orbiting astronauts might be operating a rover in real time on a planet, allowing dexterity and intuition to help explore an alien environment without the expense and danger of landing.

Such advanced robotic remote control also has many potential terrestrial applications working at sites that are inaccessible or dangerous to humans, such as deep under water or within contaminated zones.

Explore further: Robot 'shadow hand'

Related Stories

Robot 'shadow hand'

December 12, 2014

Picking up an apple is one of those jobs requiring the delicate touch of the human hand – or its robotic counterpart.

Touchy-feely joystick heading to Space Station

February 27, 2014

Stowed inside ESA's next supply ship to the International Space Station will be one of the most advanced joysticks ever built, designed to test the remote control of robots on the ground from up in orbit.

Image: ESA's telerobotic robot hand

May 1, 2014

( —As engineer Manuel Aiple moves his gauntleted hand, the robotic hand a few metres away in ESA's telerobotics laboratory follows in sync.

Driving a robot from Space Station

June 30, 2011

( -- Meet Justin, an android who will soon be controlled remotely by the astronauts in ESA’s Columbus laboratory on the International Space Station. With this and other intriguing experiments like the Eurobot ...

Recommended for you

Encouraging prospects for moon hunters

November 20, 2018

Astrophysicists of the University of Zürich, ETH Zürich and the NCCR PlanetS show how the icy moons of Uranus were born. Their result suggests that such potentially habitable worlds are much more abundant in the Universe ...

Gravitationally lensed quasars

November 19, 2018

The path of light is bent by mass, an effect predicted by Einstein's theory of gravity, and when a massive galaxy or cluster lies along our line-of-sight to a more distant galaxy its matter will act as a lens to image the ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.