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Avatar X Lab
An artist’s conception shows the site plan for the Avatar X lab planned in Japan’s Oita prefecture. (Clouds Architecture Office)

Telepresence robots on the moon and Mars? That’s the vision laid out for the partnership between ANA Holdings, the parent company of Japan’s All Nippon Airways, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

The ANA-JAXA program, known as Avatar X, aims to establish a public-private consortium to develop new types of human-controlled robots that can collect data and perform tasks in remote locations. The concept is in line with the ANA Avatar Vision that was unveiled in March, as well as with JAXA’s new J-SPARC research and development program.

“ANA is driven by a bold and inspiring vision of the future of flight, and this boldness doesn’t stop on our planet,” Shinya Katanozaka, president and CEO of ANA Holdings, said today in a news release.

“Through innovative partnerships like Avatar X, we are excited about the possibilities of what we can accomplish and where we can go when the private and public sectors join forces,” he said.

Once the consortium is set up, the Avatar X roadmap calls for the creation of a technological testbed in Japan’s southern prefecture of Oita. Avatar X Lab@Oita would become the center for developing the communications tools and robotics required for off-world telepresence.

Avatar X roadmap
The Avatar X initiative would begin on Earth and move out to the International Space Station, other outposts, the moon and Mars. (ANA Holdings Graphic)

In the early to mid-2020s, JAXA and its Avatar X partners would transfer the technologies developed at the Oita lab to low Earth orbit for testing, presumably on the International Space Station and other space platforms.

During that same time frame, NASA and its international partners are due to start development work for a new Gateway in lunar orbit. Avatar X aims to take advantage of that outward push by deploying robotic telepresence systems.

ANA Holdings expects the eventual applications to include remote construction in space, including on the lunar surface and Mars, as well as Earth-based operation and maintenance of future space outposts.

Telepresence also could open the way for new kinds of space-based entertainment and travel experiences for the general public. That’s a big reason why ANA, which has been primarily seen as an airline operator, is involved in what sounds like a science-fiction venture.

“We see ourselves not as an airplane operator, but as a company that aims to bridge the gaps between the different cultures that exist in our world,” Kevin Kajitani of ANA’s Digital Design Lab and Innovation Research, told GeekWire in March. “And that’s where we see the avatars fitting in.”

In support of that vision, ANA is backing a $10 million, four-year XPRIZE competition to boost the development of multipurpose telepresence systems — real-world robotic analogs to the systems portrayed in the blockbuster sci-fi movie “Avatar.”

The deadline for teams to sign up for the ANA Avatar XPRIZE is Jan. 9, 2019, and the winner is due to be selected by October 2021. If all goes according to plan, the competition should be gearing up just as the Avatar X lab is hitting its stride.

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