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Flying Robot Assistants Get a Tour of the ISS

Jul 19, 2014 09:05 PM EDT

NASA's prototype flying robot assistants will be getting the grand tour of the International Space Station (ISS) this weekend, giving the automated helpers ample time to become familiar with their future workplace.

Imagine waking up not to the brilliance of a rising Sun, but to the calm blue of a nearby planet, Earth. You slip out of your "cot" to let weightlessness take you and slowly make your way to the pantry.

The dreaded duty roster hangs from a nearby wall and you flinch as you realize today you will need to take inventory. Your back aches at the thought of stooping down, checking every nook and cranny of the space station to make sure all the essentials are in order.

But will you have time? There is just so much to do today? Lost in thought, you barely notice as a tiny volleyball-sized droid floats by your head, stopping briefly on its own accord to inspect one spot or another.

You can rest easy, this tiny assistant has things well in hand, taking care of inventory and other monotonous tasks even as you slept. You have more important things to worry about.

This is the futuristic dream that NASA is currently taking steps towards making a reality. The Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES for short, are small automated robots designed to serve as assistants for astronauts while they freely fly around the ISS.

"NASA uses robots for research and mission operations; just think about the rovers on Mars or the robotic arm on the ISS or space shuttle," Chris Provencher, manager of the SPHERES project, said in a statement. "Inside the ISS space is limited, so it's really exciting to see technology has advanced enough for us to demonstrate the use of small, mobile robots to enhance future exploration missions."

Astronauts aboard the ISS will be testing upgraded models of these tiny robots this weekend, experimenting with their spatial navigation capabilities enhanced with smartphones and Google's Project Tango.

Prior to their first flight, astronauts will give the SPHERES smartphones "tours" of the space station manually, allowing Project Tango software to collect data necessary for the SPHERES own spatial recognition. Later, the SPHERES will be equipped with the phones and left to freely navigate the station.

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