NASA Sends Google Smartphones to ISS to Assist Floating SPHERES Robots
By the end of the week, a batch of Google Smartphones equipped with state-of-the-art sensing technology will reach the International Space Station, ready to assist NASA's football-shaped 'SPHERES' robots that have been hovering in the station for years.
These 'SPHERES' robots, initially inspired by the hovering globe that Luke Skywalker spars with in that famous scene from Star Wars: A New Hope, were sent up to the Station back in 2006. These aren't cutting edge robotics floating around the space station, but that's not to say they don't have the potential to be. Realizing the limitations of 'SPHERES,' A team of researchers at NASA's Ames Research center have since been devising ways to upgrade these robots and subsequently enhance their daily duties.
According to 'Smart SPHERES' project manager, Chris Provencher, the Smartphones have been carefully chosen to serve as the much needed eyes and brains of these hovering ISS robots.
"We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors. As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realized the answer was in our hands," said Provencher in an interview with Reuters "Let's just use smartphones."
Attaching phones to the SPHERES robots has been done once before. Just a few years ago, NASA engineers went to a local Best Buy to procure a number of cheap cell phones for a similar purpose. But the Project Tango Google Smartphones that are being sent up to the ISS are not just any regular smartphones. These newly released cutting-edge handheld devices are the product of years of research, and feature a plethora of advanced technologies such as a motion-tracking 3D camera, and an extraordinarily intuitive infrared depth sensor. Connected to a SPHERES robot, the Smartphone will be able to create a 3D map of the station's ground, and guide the clumsy robots from module to module in a speedy and seamless manner.
"This type of capability is exactly what we need for a robot that's going to do tasks anywhere inside the space station," Provencher said. "It has to have a very robust navigation system."
According to Reuters, NASA's new phones have been "split open so that the touchscreen and sensors face outward when mounted on the robots," and "include space-tested batteries and plastic connectors" that will make assembly easy once they reach the Station.
The Smartphones, set to reach the International Space Station by this Friday, July 11th, will become the latest in a long list of products that have helped merge technological innovation created for us here on Earth, to Space-Travel on a larger scope.