NASA’s robot SPHERES are about to get smarter

Two smartphones will help the robots navigate the International Space Station


Credit: NASA

The SPHERE satellites in formation on board the International Space Station.

NASA’s robot satellites are about to get an upgrade, thanks to the delivery of two smartphones to the International Space Station. The 3D capable Project Tango phones will connect to the robots, taking them one step closer to being fully autonomous helpers.

SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) are a trio of football-sized robots that have been on board the ISS since 2006. Using jets of carbon dioxide to propel themselves, they have been used to test manoeuvring and docking procedures that could one day help with repairing and refuelling satellites in orbit.

Now the smartphones will be added onto the robots to create Smart SPHERES, giving them a powerful on board computer, Wi-Fi capabilities and even a 3D camera that will let them build a full map of the station, making it much easier for the SPHERES to navigate the station without direct human control.

Space station staff

"With this latest upgrade, we believe the Smart SPHERES will be a step closer to becoming a ‘mobile assistant' for the astronauts,” says DW Wheeler, lead engineer in the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA’s Ames Research Centre. If the robots could take over simple tasks, such as inventory checks and monitoring air quality, it would free up a lot of time for astronauts to perform other work and experiments.

"Inside the ISS space is limited,” says Chris Provencher, manager of the Smart SPHERES project, “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."

These new capabilities might also play a vital role in this year’s annual ZERO Robotics Challenge, starting in September, where school children are invited to program the devices to compete in various challenges. The two teams that qualify for the final will have their programs tested on the actual SPHERES aboard the ISS. The challenge aims to inspire the next generation of space farers by employing the technology that will be used to expand our exploration of the Solar System in years to come.


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