March 15, 2012 at 12:30 PM ET
Astronauts on missions to Mars and other worlds will almost certainly bring along a few robot helpers. A team of industrial design students is helping NASA make sure those robots are easy to control from the comfort of a spaceship.
Astronauts aren't lazy, they are "extremely busy," Maria Bualat with the Intelligent Robotics Group at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, told me.
Robots, she said, can be deployed on time consuming and intellectually boring tasks such as surveying large regions of a distant planet, freeing up astronauts to fly spaceships and document their journeys.
The robots could also be sent ahead of the astronauts to perform safety checks. "Think of the robot as the scout for human landing missions," Bualat said.
Since astronauts are so busy, anything that can make operating their real-world versions of R2-D2 and C-3PO easy and intuitive is appreciated.
Enter Mark Bolick and his industrial design students at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. They are creating comic-strip-like storyboards that illustrate how astronauts in space can control robots on the ground. In addition, they are building a wire-frame, or outline, of the user interface.
"We are trying to run this project exactly like a consultancy," Bolick told me.
The team of eight students elected a pair of project managers to lead the interaction with their counterparts at NASA, and they all research and test their ideas around the clock.
"In our five-story building, they mocked up what it would be like to control a robot on the first floor, putting obstacles in the way of the robot, and on another floor they simulated trying to communicate to the robot," Bolick noted as an example
Bualat, the NASA team lead, said the space agency intends use as much of the student's work as possible when astronauts on the International Space Station remotely operate a K10 mobile robot on Earth to layout a simulated radio telescope in a test next year.
This is part of a larger project, she added, to put a radio telescope on the far side of the moon using robots controlled by astronauts in a spaceship.
"The moon is blocking all the radio noise that is coming from all of our radio signals on Earth. So we can look at origins of the Universe from the far side of the moon," Bualat explained.
Bolick said the hands-on experience will prepare his students for real-world careers.
"I'd like to think that by the time this is over, we have two very happy camps and some solid deliverables to hand over and that these students are ready for an actual job, not just with NASA but anyone."
-- John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.