Astronauts locked inside the International Space Station (ISS) are about to get some new robotic friends: three autonomous cubes that will float around and record their every move.
The free-flying robots are called Astrobees, and they might prowl around the ISS, film astronaut activities, power new science experiments, and help NASA locate lost items by the end of 2017.
“We want this thing to be able to fly around inside the space station without the crew having to supervise it,” Chris Provencher, Astrobee’s project manager at NASA Ames Research Center, said in a video.
The team at Ames in California has toiled for years to design and build its Astrobees. But they won’t be the first floating robots to work alongside astronauts inside the ISS.
The plan is for the Astrobees to replace three ageing, orb-shaped devices called SPHERES — short for Synchronised Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites — which arrived at the space station in 2006.
A replacement for MIT’s ‘Star Wars’ drones
Students at MIT came up with the idea for SPHERES in 1999.
That’s when their professor asked them to build a copy of the Jedi-training drone (called a remote) from the movie “Star Wars”, according to NASA.
MIT’s real-life, sensor-laden drones don’t shoot stinging laser beams to improve a padawan’s lightsaber skills. However, they do use compressed gases to move around in zero-gravity, and astronauts can control them from a laptop aboard the ISS.
Researchers have devised dozens of experiments for the robots, which can fly in formation and don special attachments.
Over the past decade, in fact, the SPHERES program has led to more than 100 different academic studies. Some tested software to help satellites to avoid smacking into each other in space, while others investigated ways to build large telescopes out of a bunch of small, autonomous robots.
But going on their 11th year in space, the red, blue, and orange bots seem increasingly old and obsolete, says writer Evan Ackerman in a recent feature story at IEEE Spectrum.
For one, SPHERES robots don’t have any cameras to record and stream video back to Earth.
That’s a problem in space because there are so few people to help film activities, yet it’s vital to record experiments and educational events. NASA would rather have its astronauts stay focused on performing experiments instead of handling a camera.
Mission controllers at Johnson Space Center in Houston also want to raise their “situational awareness” of the crew — another way of saying they want better ways to spy on their precious human cargo.
“Right now when they want to see inside the space station, there are some camcorders set up, but those are in fixed locations,” Provencher said. “This would really empower them to get the view that they want by being able to fly this robot around with an HD camera and see what they need to see.”
Checking air quality, keeping track of loud sounds, logging fresh shipments of cargo, and locating lost objects in the floating laboratory is also boring and time-consuming work for astronauts, so Astrobee will be loaded with sensors and an RFID scanner to track inventory.
“There are thousands of pieces of equipment on the space station that have to be tracked and you have to know where it is,” Provencher said.
‘A Roomba for space’
To get around in zero-gravity, Astrobee has a central fan that sucks in and slightly compresses air.
When it’s ready to move the robot will direct that air out one or more of 12 nozzles. Like so many tiny jets, that should generate plenty of force to push and steer each cube toward its destination,
In its autonomous mode, Astrobees will navigate using an internal 3D map of the space station. But mission controllers can also steer the miniature spacecraft from Earth.
When NASA wants to park a robot and film something, for instance, Astrobee can fold out a robotic arm and grab a pole, as a video by Ackerman shows. Companies can also develop their own “appendages” for Astrobee, says Provencher, which will lock into modular attachment points.
Each rig will use lithium-ion batteries that can power up to a few hours of flying and filming at a time. When an Astrobee’s juice runs low, an Astrobee will automatically navigate itself to a dock for recharging via the space station’s solar panels.
“When we described what it’d be like, people thought of a bee buzzing around inside the space station, staying busy. So that’s where the name Astrobee came from,” Provencher said. But “sometimes we call it the Roomba for space,” he said.
NASA expects to launch its three Astrobee bots to the ISS sometime after September 2017 but before October 2018.
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