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Let the Space Robot Games Begin!

Jul 29, 2014 03:14 PM EDT

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station finally flight tested their prototype flying robot assistants last Friday, setting the stage for an international robot programming competition that is slated to officially begin this fall.

The Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES, are colored, volleyball-sized robots that are able to autonomously fly in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station (ISS).

New versions of the small robots, recently updated with Google's Project Tango technology to help better "understand" these surroundings, were given a grand tour of the ISS last week. Their personal smartphones (yes, these robots have their own smartphones) were toted around the station by NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) astronauts, allowing the robots to become familiar with the dimensions and obstacles of the ISS.

Then, on Thursday, NASA's ISS Commander Steve Swanson and ESA Flight Engineers Alexander Gerst took time out of their busy schedule to review procedures and fine tuning in preparation for the first test of the upgraded Smart SPHERES. The test, which took place Friday, reportedly went off without a hitch, paving a way for the fourth Zero Robotics tournament which will begin next year.

The ESA recently announced that the full details of the robotics competition will be revealed to its international student competitors in September, and will require teams to build code that will allow the SPHERES to successfully navigate through a microgravity obstacle course.

"Contenders should start working now on self-developed software and plan their strategy for the competition, ready for when the final details of the mission are unveiled," the ESA said.

Unfortunately, the competition won't start with SPHERES whizzing around the ISS at student's beck-and-call. Instead, it will first take place in computer simulations, where student-made programs will help virtual SPHERES find their way around.

The last codes standing, however, will be loaded up into the ISS Smart SPHERE, where ESA and NASA astronauts will serve as a "referees" for the final live competitions next January.

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