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European Space Agency testing 'touchy-feely' robot-controlling joystick

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An innovative new robot control system will be huddled inside the European Space Agency's next ship heading to the International Space Station. It's a joystick that is designed to remotely control robots from space with a particular emphasis on haptic feedback. A haptic-feedback joystick seems like a simple enough thing — but few things are as simple as they appear in zero gravity. To compensate for the effects of zero-g, the joystick can be mounted to the space station or, as pictured above, directly to the astronaut. The haptic feedback is important for enabling precise and complex controls of remote robots — so that their human operators can use their sense of touch to perform tasks.

The experimental model is designed to withstand knocks and physical abuse but still provide detailed haptic feedback afterwards. "The resulting system can produce minute forces most people are not sensitive enough to feel, but astronauts could kick it and it will still work and respond correctly," says André Schiele, the head of ESA's Telerobotics and Haptics Laboratory.

NASA has previously controlled robots on earth from the ISS, but the ESA's new joystick will begin its testing with smaller ambitions, namely "Pong-style computer games."