NASA Gives Astronauts Remote-Controlled Assistants

NASA: Expedition 22 Commander Jeff Williams performs a check of the SPHERES Beacon/Beacon Tester

A volleyball-sized, free-flying robot on the International Space Station helped astronauts complete tasks with a smartphone controller, according to a recent report by NASA. The first successful flight took place last month.

As part of NASA’s Technology Demonstration Missions, the agency launched the Human Exploration Telerobotics project where it installed the SPHERES Satellites with a Samsung Nexus S handset run on Android, Google’s open source platform. 

The handset is capable of providing onboard power, computing, propulsion and navigational software. NASA said it made minor changes to the smartphones, which included the removal of the GSM cellular communications chip in order to avoid interface with station electronics.

SPHERES is connected to a smartphone with a cable. The agency said data is sent to the ground with a wireless network connection to the space station’s computers.

“With the smartphone, the SPHERES will have a built-in camera to take pictures and video, sensors to help conduct inspections, a powerful computing unit to make calculations, and a Wi-Fi connection that we will use to transfer data in real-time to the space station and mission control,” said DW Wheeler, lead engineer in the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames.

Eventually, the robots could be used to simulate external free-flight excursions. A video of the November flight is available on the agency’s website here.

A report by InformationWeek says that using smartphones to control flights is an option the federal government is exploring as well. 

Examples of this include a recent collaboration with Boeing and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers flying a mini UAV using an iPhone. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking for similar mobile apps for its Adaptable Sensor System program. 

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