Telepresence for the Human Exploration And Development of Space

Humans may not need to travel to investigate new environments

8 October 2009

Telepresence, a logical derivative of the telephone, is an emerging technology that can enable a human to perform physical work, or take action, at a remote location. Telepresence could be developed to enable a human on Earth to function in, and experience, a distant space environment such as Mars as effectively, for all practical purposes, as actually going there but without going there. A telepresence mission for the human exploration and development of Mars would then be a valid, and much less expensive, substitute for a manned mission.

Mars is the planet most like the Earth. It has an atmosphere and the presence of water, essential for life, has been confirmed. In fact, the many winding valleys and other features over its surface suggest that there might once have been rivers, lakes and oceans on Mars. Is there life on Mars now, or did life ever exist there? Are there valuable ores and minerals on Mars that are in short supply or not present at all on Earth? Can the cosmic history of Mars tell us anything about the ultimate fate of planet Earth? These are some of the many questions that have led to the call for manned missions to explore and develop the Red Planet. Indeed, at the time of the moon landings many had hoped that the next step would have been a manned mission to Mars. But that did not happen. Now, 40 years later, the Augustine Commission has concluded that U.S. manned missions to the moon and Mars are not affordable.

The fundamental problem causing manned missions to be prohibitively expensive is that the transportation, sustenance, and safe return of living human bodies over the enormous distances and in the implacably hostile environment of space is extremely difficult. Mars has therefore only been explored by what are presently called unmanned robotic missions—an unfortunate terminology. It is unfortunate because the word “robot” is suggestive of an alien being such as R2D2 from Star Wars, while the term “unmanned” seems to imply the absence of a human. The false impression can thereby be created that the exploration is not really human exploration. From that viewpoint unmanned robotic missions, no matter how sophisticated, can never be regarded as a valid substitute for the manned missions that we are unable to undertake. This confusion, which may distort space policy, can be avoided by the terminology that Mars has been explored by humans on Earth using early-stage telepresence, where telepresence is an emerging technology that can enable a human to do physical work at a distant location, without going-there.

Early-stage telepresence is now being used, not only for Mars exploration with rover vehicles, but also for a number of important terrestrial applications. Soldiers are using telepresence with unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) to remotely find and disable improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan. Airmen are using telepresence with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to remotely find and attack terrorists on the other side of the world. Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are used to enable humans to work at great depths below the surface of the ocean. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved operating room suite at Stanford Research Institute in California enables surgeons to perform minimally invasive surgery remotely by telepresence (telesurgery). Telepresence development is also being actively pursued, particularly by the military. U.S. Congress has set a goal that by 2015 one-third of the operational ground combat vehicles of the U.S. Armed Forces will be unmanned. In support of this mandate the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has conducted a Grand Challenge program in which ground vehicles navigate and drive over a 132-mile route with no human driver.

The great potential significance of telepresence is that it is a derivative of related technologies, originating in 1876, which transformed human life in the 20th century. The present early-stage telepresence could be developed to impact human life even more dramatically in the 21st century, particularly in space.

The invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 made it possible, for the first time, to talk to another person at a distant location without going-there. For all practical purposes talking by telephone is as effective, for talking, as actually going-there and talking directly. Talking is not just a means of social interaction, it is an indispensable component of the world’s work that must be done each day. The telephone made it possible to perform this vital work component remotely over large distances. The world as we knew it in the 20th century, particularly the world of business, simply could not have existed without that capability.

The telephone was followed in the 20th century by the invention of television. This was another transformational development that made it possible to see a distant location in real time, without going-there. For example, millions of people can now see a ball game as it is happening, without going to the stadium. Teleconferencing is a more recent development that can enable two groups of people on different continents, to both see and talk to each other as if they were all in the same conference room.

The telephone, television and teleconferencing are now established and indispensable elements of modern life. Telepresence could be developed to go dramatically beyond these technologies to make it possible for humans to do physical work at a distant location, for example to explore Mars, as effectively for all practical purposes, as actually going there—but without going there. Telepresence missions to space would then be a valid substitute for the manned missions that we are unable to undertake.

Telepresence with this capability could probably be developed now or if not, then in the near future. As the noted futurist Ray Kurzweill has pointed out, and experience confirms, our technological capability is now in a state of explosive (exponential) growth. It is not only extremely high but it also is rapidly increasing and doing so at an ever-increasing rate.

A challenging aspect of telepresence is that the work at the remote location must be performed semi autonomously, particularly when the work location is in space and there is then a long round trip transmission delay (about 30 minutes for Mars-Earth). In all cases a human located on Earth, acting like a supervisor, will specify what work is to be done by sending high-level commands to the rover (aka robot) at the remote location. For example, “go over there, pick up that rock, and then put it into this inspection station.” (The position of the items in italics would be designated by the human supervisor, for example by marking them on a video image of the remote scene). However the detailed execution of each of these high-level work tasks must be carried out autonomously by the rover vehicle. The skill needed to do that would be pre programmed into the rover, just as hand-eye coordination skills are learned by a human and then subconsciously utilized when needed.


The development of telepresence for space would enable the human exploration and development of Mars, other planets, moons, and asteroids to be systematically and affordably performed now and for centuries to come. Multiple rovers could be deployed to a space location that would service and maintain each other, under the control of humans on Earth, thereby effectively maintaining effective human presence at that space location more or less indefinitely.

Telepresence for space could also be applied for the repair and maintenance of military, civilian, and scientific satellites in Earth orbit.

On Earth, the development of telepresence would greatly enhance the current early stage military and civilian applications of telepresence. (UGVs, UAVs, ROVs, telesurgery, etc.), and would likely spawn many other terrestrial applications.

The rationale for telepresence for space is the difficulty of transporting humans to and from space. Over the last decade we have become increasingly aware of the problems associated with the transportation of billions of humans over the Earth itself to and from their place of work each day; namely the cost and availability of the energy needed for this mass commuting, and its impact on climate change and highway congestion. In principle, telepresence could be applied to enable many of the world’s workers to work at their place of work, without going-there. To a limited extent this is already happening (telecommuting). White-collar workers can access their computer at work from their home computer or from a laptop when on the road. However, given the existing vast infrastructure of offices and factories and the corresponding work-culture that now exists, it may be difficult to apply telepresence more extensively for white collar, and particularly so for blue-collar telecommuting. Nevertheless, the serious nature of the energy and climate change problems, and the difficulty the world is now having in dealing with them, suggests that working-there by telepresence without going-there may ultimately have to be considered as part of the solution.

Within this century does the future of the human exploration and development of space that NASA has been attempting all along lie with manned missions or with telepresence missions?

With the recent publication of the Augustine Commission’s Report on human space flight, and 40 years after the of the moon landings, this may be an opportune time to undertake a review of telepresence. Could telepresence be developed so that, within a reasonable time-frame, a telepresence mission to Mars could be developed and deployed that would be as effective, for all practical purposes, as a manned mission? If so, the manned space program should be restructured, and at least part of its much greater resources redirected to telepresence development.

The development of telepresence for space would finally enable the human exploration and development of space. It would also establish a vibrant high tech industry on Earth, attractive to young engineers and scientists, serving not only telepresence for space but also its many terrestrial applications. The individual component technologies of telepresence such as autonomy, dexterous manipulators, and video relay would find wide application in the very high tech world ahead in the 21st century.

John Merchant is an IEEE member and president of RPU Technology, in Needham, Mass., which specializes in the development of collision avoidance, target recognition, and target detection systems.

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