Friday, May 30, 2014

Flying Droids a Reality on ISS

Space station's flying droids embrace Google smartphone tech
The free-flying Spheres, inspired by "Star Wars" and now aided by Google's Project Tango, will handle more of the mundane tasks for astronauts.
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Imagine you're an astronaut who has just arrived at the International Space Station. You need to assess the supplies on hand, but counting everything demands so much of your limited time.

That's exactly why NASA originally turned to Spheres, autonomous, free-flying robots that take care of mundane tasks and are based on the flying droid that helped teach Luke Skywalker how to fight with a light saber in the original "Star Wars."

Now, Spheres are incorporating Google's Project Tango, cutting-edge tech that is expected to help the space agency increase efficiency.

For some time -- since 2003, to be exact -- space station crews have had access to free-flying robots known as Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites. That ungainly title is best abbreviated to a more palatable acronym: Spheres. Originally designed by aero/astroengineers at MIT, Spheres were meant as a flying test bed for examining the mechanical properties of materials in microgravity. The inspiration for the project, said Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA, "comes from 'Star Wars,' as all good things do."

Now, NASA is bringing an especially innovative commercial tool into the mix. Starting this October, Spheres will incorporate Project Tango -- a smartphone platform built for 3D mapping that also happens to be packed with just the series of sensors and cameras that NASA needs to handle many of the mundane tasks aboard the ISS.

In 2003, Spheres were fairly rudimentary -- at least for flying autonomous robots. They relied on liquid carbon dioxide for propulsion and on an ancient Texas Instruments digital signal processor.

About four years ago, Fong's Intelligent Robotics Group took over the project. Since then, it has been slowly improving Spheres robots by using the small computers better known as smartphones. At first, NASA worked with Nexus S smartphones, which are jammed with cameras, gyroscopes, accelerometers, and modern processors. [...]
I remember reading about these years ago, about how they could fly around the ISS because of the zero gravity. Now they are evolving, using smartphone technology. See the whole article for embedded links, photos and video.

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