Esa seeks help to control robot spacecraft

Parrot drone The way humans control drones could aid future robot spacecraft

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The European Space Agency is turning to owners of terrestrial robot aircraft to aid those that journey into space.

The agency has released software that makes use of the cameras on the Parrot drone to simulate docking with a virtual space station.

The Parrot drone quadcopter has proved popular with many iPhone owners as it can be controlled via the handset.

Data generated by the agency's app will be analysed to help fine tune navigation software for its own drones.

Fine control

Users of the European Space Agency's (Esa) app will designate a real-world feature to serve as their docking port.

An augmented-reality marker representing the port or airlock will then be overlaid on the image sent back to their handset by the drone's cameras.

Docking attempts will be scored by how fast the manoeuvre is completed without bumps, scrapes or crashes.

Extra points will be awarded for correctly orientating the drone and a slow final approach.

The Esa said it was not interested in the features drone owners designated as their virtual docking port - it wanted to gather data only about the way humans navigated the robot craft.

In particular it wanted to find out about the tiny corrections people made to keep a drone on course.

"People intuitively assess their position and motion in relation to their surroundings in various ways, based on what they see before them," said Esa research fellow Guido de Croon in a statement.

Data gathered via the app will be used to enable future robot spacecraft to cope with a wide variety of docking situations.

"We can obtain real-life data to train our algorithms in large amounts that would practically be impossible to get in any other way," said Leopold Summerer, head of the Esa lab that developed the app.

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