Thursday, February 16, 2012

Puppets, Telerobots and James Cameron

Cameron’s movie Avatar looks at telepresence and remote interaction. The biological telerobots portrayed are well beyond our present state of the art. However telepresence and telerobots made of metal, silicon and plastic aren't science fiction, they are being used today.

Avatar also portrays more plausible puppets made of metal, silicon and plastic. The mercenaries will don exosuits for heavy work or hand to hand combat. An exosuit user will slip inside a motion capture suit within the exosuit. The user’s movements are mimiced by the exosuit’s movements. If a robot puppet can be operated by a motion capture suit from within, it could also be operated by remote motion capture. The notion of exosuits is related to the notion of telerobots.

Cameron’s movie The Abyss featured Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs). James Cameron and his brother Mike developed ROVs for underwater exploration and filming. Their ROV dubbed “Snoop Dog” was used to explore the Titanic in preparation for making of the movie. Later ROVs named “Jake” and “Elwood” were used for further exploration of the Titanic as well as the sunken battle ship Bismarck. Cameron and Vince Pace developed 3-D cameras to film the sunken ships. 3-D cameras bring us a little closer to the goal of a fully immersive telepresence.

The Cameron brothers aren’t the only players developing telerobots and telepresence.

Existing markets are pushing advances in the state of art. As easy to reach resource bodies are exhausted, industry is looking to ore bodies in wastelands and under the ocean. Any hard to reach and/or dangerous workplace could benefit from telerobots. Rio Tinto Mining company is developing teleoperated devices (see page 10 of this pdf). British Petroleum uses submersible ROVs with their underwater oil platforms. There are also military applications. It is becoming more common to use drones for reconnaissance or telerobots to disarm bombs.

The movie industry uses motion capture suits. Actor Mike Meyers operates the virtual puppet Shrek with motion capture. The blue beings in Avatar are virtual puppets operated in a similar fashion. Motion capture is starting to move into the video game market, Wii and Kinect being early platforms.

Given various market forces, it’s inevitable telerobots will climb in ability as they drop in price.

Improved telerobots could be a huge game changer in efforts to settle and exploit space.

Remotely operated rovers Spirit and Opportunity were a spectacular success in gathering science on Mars. Cameron had offered to put his 3-D camera on the Mars Science Laboratory rover, but there wasn’t enough time to redesign the rover before the November, 2011 launch window.

For several reasons, a lunar telerobot could be far more able than a Martian telerobot. Light lag to a Mars rover ranges from ten to fifty minutes. Lunar light lag is about three seconds. Another factor is bandwidth. An able telerobot needs to send lots of sensory data as well as receive complex instructions. Signal strength falls with inverse square of distance and a weak signal is more easily lost to noise. So the moon’s proximity makes high bandwidth less difficult. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter achieved 100 megabytes per second.

James Cameron sits on the board of the Google Lunar X Prize. This competition will award 20 million dollars to the first team that lands a rover on the moon. The rover must travel 100 meters while sending video images back to earth. It is my hope that Cameron will eventually work with these teams to land lunar rovers with his 3-D cameras on board.

Telepresence may become an early form of space tourism. A tourist could move about the lunar surface, picking up rocks and interacting with the lunar environment in other ways. All while his flesh and blood body moves about in a motion capture suit safe and comfortable on earth’s surface.

The Cameron brothers took great satisfaction in capturing light passing though the Titanic’s lead windows. Windows that hadn’t felt light since 1912. I like to imagine the Cameron/Pace 3D cameras filming the terrain of a crater floor at a lunar pole. An environment that hasn’t felt sunlight for billions of years. Inky black pits that fall to 40 degrees above absolute zero, even colder than Pluto. These craters are bound to contain some of the most bizarre and surreal landscapes in the solar system.

Besides strangeness and mystery, the lunar cold traps are thought to have abundant water and CHON (Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen). Lunar water ice is exciting. Ice can be used for drinking water, radiation shielding, and water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket propellant. The nitrogen and oxygen compouds could provide air to breathe. Besides giving us vicarious experience of alien landscapes, we might use lunar telerobots to prepare an enduring human home on the moon.

Links:
The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron
Big Dog. A robot with balance, a technology that could mitigate the slow reaction time from a 3 second light lag.
Google Cars. A robot with collision avoidance, another technology that could mitigate a 3 second reaction time.
Shackleton Energy Company. A TED video by Bill Stone. Stone hopes to mine lunar propellant with the aid of robots. The video features Stone's semi-autonomous robot, DepthX, a device for exploring subterranean caves.
Spudis and Lavoie's Lunar architecture. Dr. Paul Spudis and Tony Lavoie also propose to utilize lunar propellant with the aid of telerobots.

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