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Flying Smartphone Robots in Space

Jul 10, 2014 09:22 AM EDT
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It may sound a bit unreal, but astronauts have reportedly been working with small spherical free flying robots on the international space station since 2011, and these little guys are now being upgraded with their own smartphones.

The Intelligent Robotics Group at NASAs Ames Research Center is sending a trio of volleyball-sized free-flying robots up to the International Space Station (ISS) on Saturday in a cargo shipment on Orbital's Antares rocket.

The tiny robots, called Smart Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites - or simply "Smart SPHERES," have been upgraded with the latest in 3-D sensors and orientation technology, potentially allowing the microgravity fliers to better float around and observe the ISS.

"With this latest upgrade, we believe the Smart SPHERES will be a step closer to becoming a 'mobile assistant' for the astronauts," lead engineer with SGT Inc. in the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames, DW Wheeler, said in a statement.

According to Wheeler, it is the space agency's hope that the SPHERES will one day be able to freely explore and navigate the ISS, automatically identifying objects of interest to accomplish ceartain monotonous tasks right now preformed by already busy astronauts during their limited stays on the station.

"This ability for Smart SPHERES to independently perform inventory and environmental surveys on the space station can free up time for astronauts and mission control to perform science experiments and other work," he said.

The SPHEREs have been undergoing preliminary trials and testing since 2011, but this latest batch of upgrades will likely make the robotic assistants better aware of their surroundings.

In a collaboration with Google, the Ames engineers have equipped the latest line of SPHERES with Project Tango - an initiative that aims to make smartphones aware of space and motion at a "human-scale understanding."

"The Project Tango prototype incorporates a particularly important feature for the Smart SPHERES - a 3-D sensor," said Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames. "This allows the satellites to do a better job of flying around on the space station and understanding where exactly they are."

According to a recent NASA release, the Smart SPHERES will be heading up to the ISS along with experimental CubeSat satellite technology on the unmanned Cygnus cargo spacecraft.

After a weather-related delay, the Antares rocket carrying the craft will now launch on July 12 at 1:14 p.m. EDT.

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