Usually, controlling robots is done the other way around, with humans here on Earth giving commands to machinery located elsewhere in space. Later this summer, an unnamed astronaut up on the ISS will use a series of controls installed in the space station's Columbus Module to assign tasks to no less than four pieces of machinery which will eventually be located at the German Space Operations Centre (GSOC).
The first of four machines is a lander that comes with a robotic arm and can be used to load and unload samples. The second, a tad more complex, is a humanoid robot ESA likes to call Rollin' Justin, while the third is a dog-like machine named Bert. Last on the list is a rover with two robotic arms.
The exact details of the Surface Avatar experiment have not been disclosed, and they won't be, as ESA needs the details of the tasks to be performed to be kept a secret, so as to not allow the controller up on the ISS time to prepare, and to react more naturally to how the robots respond.
The tasks, we're told, will be complex, and will have the astronaut give robots stuff to do, while supervising them from up there. Because of the distances involved (the ISS is floating at about 400 km/249 miles from the surface of the planet), a round-trip delay between command and feedback of about 800 milliseconds is expected. That's four times the blink of an eye, ESA says.
The experiment has been designed as a way to see how surface robots could be controlled from space. In light of upcoming missions to the Moon and later on even Mars, this research is essential. As a side effect, it could also lead to the development of new and improved robotic explorers.
This summer's Surface Avatar is more of a dry run for a full-blown experiment expected to take place next year, led by Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen. The mission set to take place then is called Huginn.