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What Is a Teleoperator?

By Christian Petersen
Updated May 21, 2024
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Teleoperator is a term with two related meanings, the first is a device that operates under the remote control of a human and the second is the person who operates such a device. The devices are composed of two main parts, the control and the device itself, which may be connected by wireless means such as radio, the Internet, hardwired connections or complex electromechanical interfaces as in the case of remote surgery systems. Teleoperated devices are an integral part of the larger field of telerobotics and are often designed to operate in conditions inaccessible to or too dangerous for humans.

Military, law enforcement, and space exploration agencies use teleoperator devices and have long been one of the primary developers of the technologies behind them. Two other fields that employ teleoperator devices are the medical industry and hazardous material handling services. All of these fields and industries use these teleoperated machines, robots, and devices to carry out tasks and operations that are too dangerous for direct human contact or that are in places inaccessible or hazardous to humans. Integral to these types of devices is sensory equipment, such as cameras, to give feedback to the human operator.

Space programs rely on this kind of technology to control planetary exploration vehicles like the Mars rover, interplanetary probes, orbital telescopes, and devices like the cargo arm on the now retired American space shuttles. Many of these devices are semi-autonomous robots or telerobots, which means that they are capable of some kind of autonomous action when not under direct control. Teleoperators can be comprehensively controlled by direct human action, or they can be controlled through the use of instruction macros and programmed routines which relay a set of instructions that the device is capable of carrying out.

Bomb disposal and radioactive material handling are two other fields that rely on teleoperator devices. Remotely operated robots allow for military and law enforcement bomb and explosive disposal technicians to safely handle potentially dangerous or deadly devices from a distance, reducing or eliminating the risk of injury or death. Nuclear plants as well as research and weapons facilities use teleoperator devices to safely handle radioactive materials and waste.

While most devices of this type are, by definition, controlled from a distance, this is not necessarily the case. Remote surgery is an example of teleoperation that is usually controlled locally. Surgeons employ teleoperator devices that take the input provided by the surgeon's hands and convert it to minute movements in microsurgery that would be too fine to perform manually. They also employ devices that allow them to perform procedures and surgeries with minimally invasive practices, such as inserting a remotely controlled instrument through a small incision to perform heart surgery instead of having to make large incisions to allow direct access by the surgeon's hands. This technology also allows surgeons to do these kinds of procedures from a distance and to interact with and visually examine patients through an interface on such a device.

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