The international UNISONO project, which is coordinated by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, has developed a communication solution that can allow orbiting space station in outer space to maintain uninterrupted contact with robots working on the surface of a planet. The technology also has potential industrial applications, such as to reduce lags and jitters in mobile gaming.
The technology developed in the course of the UNISONO project is an important step forward for initiatives such as the human mission to Mars. Before humans can land on Mars, the planet needs infrastructure, such as housing and laboratories, which need to be built by robots. These robots need to be controlled by astronauts from a space station orbiting the planet.
Astronauts can currently practice to control the robots on Earth from the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS is in constant orbit around Earth, which means that the astronauts frequently lose direct contact with the robot. This results in discontinuity in the data and video transmission, stopping astronauts to maintain the control of the robot.
"Losing control of the robot during a critical task can cause damage to the task or the robot itself. The UNISONO project has developed a solution which can keep the astronaut in constant contact with the robot during entire orbit", explains Dr Ali Muhammad, Principal Investigator in Robotics Systems at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.
The time window for ISS to be in direct contact with a robot on Earth is much shorter than what is planned for an orbiter around the Mars. The UNISONO project has shown that how this time window available to the astronaut can be widen by seamlessly switching between relaying stations on the ground. This allows astronauts to realistically simulate the future robotic missions on Mars, moon or other heavenly bodies.
At this stage, the project has demonstrated a seamless switching concept which can be further developed to become reality for future human missions to Mars.
Potential industrial applications of the technology
The technology also has many potential industrial applications. The same idea can be used to design seamless wireless data transmission systems to solve the problem of smart phones losing signal when people use them in a moving car or on a train.
The gaming industry could use the technology to eliminate lags and jitters in mobile games.
"Mobile gamers frequently experience lags and other connection issues during a game. The technology developed in the course of the UNISONO project could improve their experience", said Janne Seppänen, Research Scientist at VTT.
A boost to Finland's reputation in space research
VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has considerable experience of developing telerobotics technologies for extreme environments such as ITER fusion reactor. VTT has developed a number of robot-based solutions for the maintenance of reactor, which is being built in France.
The UNISONO project also relied on communication tools such as Qosmet developed during research projects at VTT. Qosmet is a tool for measuring network performance. In the UNISONO project, Qosmet was used to monitor and demonstrate the seamless connectivity when communication switched between the relaying stations.
VTT once again demonstrated its core strength of being able to combine multiple technologies and expertise. In case of UNISONO it is telerobotics and telecommunication. This is what gives VTT an advantage over many other organisations in many fields including space research.
"The UNISONO project made an important contribution in reinforcing VTT's reputation among the space research organisations, industries and research institutions involved in the space ecosystem", said Dr Muhammad.
The UNISONO project was awarded to VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and Italian company Altec SpA by European Space Agency (ESA) after an international competition.
The project was launched in June 2014 and is coordinated by VTT. The UNISONO project is part of Multi-Purpose End-To-End Robotic Operation Network (METERON) programme http://blogs.esa.int/meteron/