NASA's ongoing "Smart SPHERES" experiment has demonstrated how a smartphone controller can serve as remotely operated assistant after it successfully transmitted motion data gathered by a free-flying robot on the International Space Station to its astronaut handler.
NASA's Human Exploration Telerobotics project, has equipped the compact, free-flying satellites known as Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES with a Samsung Nexus S handset that features Google's open-source Android platform.
According to NASA, these compact assistants will conduct interior station surveys and inspections, capturing mobile camera images and video in the coming months. NASA also plans to simulate external free-flight excursions and in time will test whether the robots can handle other, more challenging tasks.
"The tests that we are conducting with Smart SPHERES will help NASA make better use of robots as assistants to and versatile support for human explorers -- in Earth orbit or on long missions to other worlds and new destinations," said Terry Fong, project manager of the Human Exploration Telerobotics project and Director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.
The volleyball-sized SPHERES each has its own onboard power, propulsion, computing and navigational software. With the addition of the smartphone, the satellite is transformed into a free-flying robot, or "Smart SPHERES," complete with a compact, low-power, low-cost embedded computer and built-in cameras and sensors to enhance and expand robotic operations.
The smartphone is almost identical to the off-the-shelf consumer device except for some minor modifications, including removing the GSM cellular communications chip to avoid interference with station electronics, and replacing the standard lithium-ion battery with AA alkaline batteries.
The Nexus S phone is the first commercial smartphone certified by NASA for use on the space station although NASA anticipates using other types of smartphones on the station in the future. It is connected to a SPHERES free-flyer via a cable. A wireless network connection (Wi-Fi) to the space station's computers provides the data path to the ground.
"The space station is just the first step to using remotely controlled robots to support human exploration," according Chris Moore, program executive in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Building on our experience in controlling robots on station, one day we'll be able to apply what we've learned and have humans and robots working together everywhere from earth orbit, to the moon, asteroids, and Mars," Moore said.
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