Mars will probably be the next giant leap for mankind – but it’s not certain that the feet that step onto it will belong to a man or woman. The development of the robonaut, humanoid robots to go to Mars in our place, is well underway. Some experts say they’re cheaper, safer and more effective than sending humans to the red planet. So will a living, breathing person ever set foot on Mars?
It was difficult enough getting to the moon, 239,000 miles, or 385,000 kilometres away from Earth. That’s nothing, compared to the 34 million mile, or 55 million kilometres, distance to Mars and that’s the closest distance, get the timing wrong and that increases to nearly 250 million miles or 400 million km
Since 1960 there have been 55 missions to the red planet. Of those, 25 have failed and another four have partially failed. Eight machines remain in operation on or around Mars, with the Opportunity rover, launched in 2003, and the Curiosity rover, launched in 2011, the only operational robots on the planet.
In the sky above Mars, there are six orbiters monitoring weather and geological patterns. But those are all relatively old tech. Within the next two decades, it’s hoped that exploration of Mars will be taken over by robonauts.
Engineers have been working on human-shaped robots that offer all the advantages of the latest technology, plus the ability to work alongside humans. Humanoid machines can be used to simulate the experience of humans in extreme environments, offering more information on how to protect people – if they should ever go there.
One of the key developments in robonauts was Asimo, unveiled by the Honda corporation in 2000. Asimo is the size of a twelve-year-old boy and is capable of walking, running and even dancing like a human.
The technology took a huge leap forward as a result of the DARPA Robotics Challenge contest, which took place between 2012 and 2015. Entries were invited that could complete eight tasks, focused around search and rescue operations on Earth, including being able to drive a vehicle, walk across rubble, open doors, climb ladders and use tools.
The contest led to the creation of androids that could pick themselves up if they fell over, communicate using speech recognition and facial expressions, and move in a realistic human way.
But NASA’s Robonaut series appear to have achieved most. They were built with the idea of working in space, alongside humans, in mind.
Robonaut 1 came in two versions between 1997 and 2002 and explored the use of teleoperation. They could be remotely controlled by a user who was elsewhere. Due to its human-like hands and arms, it didn’t need specially-designed tools and could use the ones that astronauts used. But R1 was basically a torso that could be attached to a base with wheels so it wasn’t fully capable of human motion.
Neither was R2 – but the later model proved so successful that it was flown to the International Space Station in 2011. The R2 began working on basic tasks through the use of telepresence, a complex system of cameras, sensors and feedback suppliers that gives remote operators the feeling that they’re actually there with the robot. R2 was designed to be capable of moving, and even working outside the ISS, but the framework to make it truly mobile wasn’t supplied – although it got a pair of legs later in its mission.
The latest robonaut is the R5, also known as Valkyrie, which was based on the search and rescue principles of the DARPA contest, but also with the exploration of Mars in mind. Four Valkyries have been built – each Valkyrie is six feet tall, weighs 300 pounds around 136kg and cost around $2M dollars to build. Each contains nearly two hundred sensors to provide feedback, and twenty-eight torque-controlled joints to mimic human movement.
But there are still problems with sending robonauts to Mars. Latency is the biggest one. It takes about 3-1/2 minutes at the shortest distance between earth and mars and 22 minutes at the longest for the signal to go one way and then the same for the return signal.
That rules out real-time operation by telepresence. It’s hoped that improvements in artificial intelligence will help solve the problem… although it won’t go away.
Cost is another issue. Sending a robot to Mars instead of a human is cheaper because a robot doesn’t need the life support mechanisms and supplies that a person does, and also doesn’t need to come back to Earth.
But one of the main reasons the Apollo missions to the moon were funded was because PEOPLE were going there. The human adventure made the prospect exciting to the public, and the international tensions of the space-race era meant there were political and military advantages to covering the costs.
If we’re not sending men to Mars, who wants to pay for it? As Stephen Hawking said in 2009, “robotic mission’s don’t catch the public imagination in the same way, and they don’t spread the human race into space, which should be our long-term strategy. We will have to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
It’s not fully accepted that robots are better than people in the first place. Along with the speed of human decision-making and reactions, it’s argued that people are more cost-effective, when you evaluate how much scientific information they retrieve per dollar spent.
In 2005, the UK’s Royal Astronomic Survey Commission on the Scientific Case for Human Space Exploration discussed the topic. They argued that that, in 1972, the astronauts of Apollo 17 travelled thirty-six kilometres across the moon’s surface, while the Opportunity rover had taken eight years to cover almost the same distance on Mars.
They pointed out that, with no return requirement for robots, no material from the surface of Mars had yet been brought back to Earth, compared to nearly four hundred kilogrammes of moon samples.
In 2007, an experiment took place at the Haughton impact crater in Canada, where a human in a space suit worked alongside a rover operated by telepresence. In the test, the human was found to be between ten and a hundred times more effective than the machine – which was more advanced than anything on Mars at the time.
Steve Squyres, who was part of the Opportunity team, admitted that most things a rover could do in a day could be done by a human in less than a minute.
It was also argued that robot missions weren’t getting cheaper as expected. It had always been assumed that miniaturisation of technology would make probes smaller and lighter. But as our need to discover more specific information increased, the type of experiments we needed to send became heavier, and the probes actually became bigger, and therefore more expensive to send.
So, robot or human… or robot AND human? It looks like robonauts could go to Mars first, to pave the way for humans. Then, when humans arrive, they’ll work alongside their automated friends.
But there’s a compromise option. Instead of going all the way to Mars, astronauts might set up a base on the planet’s moons, Phobos and Deimos, then sent robots onto the planet, to be operated by telepresence from much closer than Earth.
But the idea of humans going NEARLY all the way to Mars, and not quite getting there, perhaps for decades afterwards, isn’t going to sit well with fans of the human adventure and ultimately the ones bankrolling the missions.
Meanwhile, the next stage of robotic development could be unveiled this month, with the final round of NASA’s Space Robotic Challenge. Twenty teams will compete to operate a virtual Valkyrie robot in a Martian environment, complete with the latency issues they’d have to face in real life. The winning team gets a million dollars – but advance in the field of robonautics is the real prize.
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