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Japan's ANA enters space exploration business

The Avatar X program aims to use robots controlled from Earth

ANA sees promising business opportunities in space exploration.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japanese airline ANA Holdings said Thursday it will enter the space exploration business by developing technologies to place robots in outer space and to operate them from Earth.

The program, named Avatar X, will build on the technologies in virtual reality and other areas ANA has been developing to allow humans to remotely explore outer space.

ANA plans to form a consortium of private companies and public sector organizations to implement the program. The consortium will be established this year and will include Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, SoftBank, NTT DoCoMo, KDDI and HIS.

According to ANA, Avatar X will be made up of two parts -- an operator, or the pilot, and a remote controller, or Avatar -- that act in complete synchronization. The pilot's intentions will be transmitted to the Avatar, while the sensations detected by Avatar, such as sight, sound and touch, will be fed back to the pilot in real time.

ANA said that testing of the technologies will be conducted in the lower earth orbit in the early 2020s. Once they prove to be capable, they will be deployed on the moon or Mars to build, operate and maintain space stations. They can also be used by the general public for a virtual reality experience of outer space.

"ANA is driven by a bold and inspiring vision of the future of flight," said President and CEO Shinya Katanozaka in a news release.

In a news conference, he shared with reporters the dream he had when he joined the company almost 40 years ago. "I want to run the space transport business," he told the company then.

As a first step, the consortium will build a dedicated Avatar space test field in the southern Japanese prefecture of Oita. The facility will allow testing of Avatars in space scenarios and house research facilities and exhibition rooms, ANA said.

ANA regards space as a promising business area and has been looking for opportunities to make a foray. In 2016, the company invested in PD AeroSpace, a Nagoya-based startup developing fully reusable suborbital spacecraft.

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