Smartphone-Wielding Space Robots Could Take Over For Astronauts
July 8, 2014

Smartphone-Wielding Space Robots Could Take Over For Astronauts

Peter Suciu for - Your Universe Online

NASA plans to send a Google 3D smartphone into space. While this handset may boldy go where no handset has gone before the actual purpose is for it to function as the "eyes and brains" of free-flying robots inside the International Space Station (ISS). The robots, which are known as SPHERES (Synchronised Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental satellites), could eventually take over the daily chores that are currently handled by astronauts.

The handsets are part of Google's Project Tango augmented reality initiative and will blast off to the ISS on a cargo spacecraft scheduled for launch on July 11.

The SPHERES are bowling-ball sized spherical satellites that can be used inside the ISS, and in NASA's next experiment three of these will fly within the cabin and perform flight functions. Each SPHERE is self-contained with power, propulsion, computers and navigation equipment. Google's Project Tango technology will enhance the functionality of these devices.

The SPHERE first went to space in 2006 and in testing the robots were found to be capable of precise movement but not much else. In 2010 engineers at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, developed ways to create a smarter robot for use on the ISS.

"We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors. As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realized the answer was in our hands," Smart SPHERES project manager Chris Provencher told Reuters in an interview. "Let's just use smartphones."

The first experiment included off-the-shelf handsets purchased at Best Buy. Engineers added extra batteries and shatterproof displays and launched these into space. Astronauts aboard the ISS used Velcro and attached the handsets to the SPHERES. The phones provided the robots with new sensing and visual capabilities but it was determined that there was still room for improvement.

NASA then turned to Google and its Project Tango handsets, which include motion-tracking camera technology and an infrared depth sensor, which can detect sharp angles inside the station. The handsets have allowed for the creation of a 3D map that provides a way for the SPHERES to navigate from one module to another.

"This type of capability is exactly what we need for a robot that's going to do tasks anywhere inside the space station," Provencher added. "It has to have a very robust navigation system."

"This is an incredibly clever way to unite different technologies in an unexpected way," Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, told the BBC. "It will be interesting to see how much this inspires Google to use this technology for its own robotics development following on the several world-class robot companies it has purchased in the last year."

By teaming up with Google, NASA could also save money and still reap the benefits that Project Tango offers.

"Robots were and still are usually very expensive and complex, thus they often don't match to a cost-benefit balance," Dr Fumiya Iida, lecturer at the department of engineering at the University of Cambridge, added to the BBC. "By using consumer electronics such as smartphones, we can significantly reduce down the development cost for robots with high-performance capabilities which were not possible 10 years ago."

Perhaps the next step might be to provide the SPHERES with tablets. Google recently partnered with LG to launch a Project Tango tablet and released a Project Tango Tablet Developer's Kit that is aimed at encouraging developers to experiment with this technology.


FOR THE KINDLE - The History of Space Exploration: redOrbit Press