Sciency Words: Telerobotics

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


This is a pretty easy one, I think. Telerobotics refers to controlling robots from a distance, usually a great distance. This is in contrast to robots that function autonomously or machines that require direct human control.

The word comes from the familiar Greek root tele-, meaning “far away,” and of course the word robot, which originally comes from Czech and means something like “forced labor.”

A wide variety of fields use telerobotics, but for the purposes of this blog we’re most interested in its use in space exploration. At this point most if not all spacecraft are telerobotic in nature. They receive instructions from mission control on Earth, carry out their instructions, and then transmit their status back to Earth so that mission control can decide what to make the spacecraft or space vehicle do next.

The problem, of course, is that this back and forth communication is restricted by the speed of light. In the case of the Mars rovers, this means that even performing the simplest tasks can take hours and hours. It’s very frustrating, especially for the rovers.

This is one of the biggest reasons Buzz Aldrin and others say we should send astronauts to Phobos (one of Mars’s moons) before sending anyone to Mars itself. From a small Phobos base, astronauts could telerobotically control the rovers in real time. The speed-of-light delay would be negligible.

The rovers could cover a lot more ground that way, dramatically speeding up our exploration of Mars. Also, when the time comes, the rovers could be used to quickly prepare a landing site and assemble habitat structures in advance of the first human colonists arriving on Mars.

2 Responses to Sciency Words: Telerobotics

  1. Steve Morris says:

    Another approach would be to build in some semi-autonomous behaviour, if that were possible. It might be more cost-effective than a manned mission.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      I think that makes sense, at least for some kinds of missions. If we send a robotic submarine to Europa, for example, I think that robot would need to be able to think for itself. But if we’re going to do something like have robots build habitats for us on Mars, I think some degree of human control, or at least human supervision, would be necessary.


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