Understanding the Human Factors in Advanced Space Robotics

May 15, 2023

It stands to reason that if you are operating a sophisticated piece of equipment 400,000 kilometers from Earth, there is no room for error. The interface between operator and equipment must be smooth and efficient, even intuitive. That’s why MDA engaged Human Factors North to work on Canadarm3 for the Lunar Gateway.


As part of MDA’s  Industrial and Technological Benefits commitments to Canada, Human Factors North (HFN), a Canadian small and medium size business, will be supporting various human factors activities for both the ground control segment and on-orbit components of the Gateway External Robotics System (GERS) – the smart robotic system that includes Canadarm3.


“What that means,” explains Dr. Missy (Christina) Rudin-Brown, Human Factors Specialist with HFN, “is that we are working with MDA to ensure the systems they deliver to the Canadian Space Agency are optimized so the humans operating and monitoring them can do so in the safest, most efficient, and effective ways possible. Human factors specialists are the Deanna Troi of the engineering world,” she adds with a smile, referencing the popular character from Star Trek: The Next Generation, “analysing the interactions between humans and the rest of the system, which in the case of this project, is the GERS.”


Many factors modify how people interact with systems: physiological, psychological, environmental, equipment design, to name a few. The goal of the human factors engineer is to isolate each factor, determine the extent of its impact on human performance, and improve that interface through design.


“Human Factors Engineering (HFE) is not a ‘nice to have,’ it is core. Imagine walking into a room in the dark: you reach for the light switch, and it is oriented the wrong way, or you try to turn up the volume on a piece of equipment and rather than being a turn toward the right or an up lever, it works in the opposite direction – disorienting, right?” Understanding human factors and their effects on the system is essential to every design project, but especially to the ones of great impact, explains Dr. Rudin-Brown. “It is infinitely better to consider HFE in the design phase, rather than having to apply it after the fact to understand a failure or accident.”


Dr. Rudin-Brown is excited to be working on the project, as are her colleagues. “We’re pleased and proud to be involved in this initiative - who wouldn’t be? And, personally, I’m a bit of a space geek, and have been ever since my dad got us up to see the original lunar landing.”


She points to MDA’s LaunchPad program as being a key opportunity for small, highly specialized companies like HFN (which has just seven consultants). “We were introduced to MDA through a role that we had on another LaunchPad collaboration, on medical robotics, and they got to know our work.” She advises Canadian companies that might want to work with MDA to investigate the program. “Let them know your interest, your passion, that you are keen. If you get the chance to play even a small part, take it! You can demonstrate your proficiencies, get noticed. You never know where they are going to take you next!”