SMARTPHONES AND SPHERES
In November last year, a free-flying robot on the International Space
Station successfully gathered and delivered motion data to its astronaut
handler for the first time via a new smartphone controller.
The Human Exploration Telerobotics project — one of NASA's new,
high-value Technology Demonstration Missions — 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.
Each volleyball-sized SPHERES has its own onboard power,
propulsion, computing, and navigational software. Adding the smartphone
transforms the satellite 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.
Minor modifications were made to the smartphones, including
removing the GSM cellular communications chip to avoid interference
with station electronics, and replacing the standard Lithium-Ion battery
with AA alkaline batteries. Otherwise, the smartphone is identical to the
off-the-shelf consumer device.
The ongoing experiment demonstrates how Smart SPHERES can
serve as remotely operated assistants for astronauts in space. In coming
months, these compact assistants will conduct interior station surveys
and inspections, capturing mobile camera images and video. 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, CA.
The Nexus S phone is the first commercial smartphone certified by
NASA for use on the space station. Each smartphone 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. NASA anticipates using other types of smartphones on
the station in the future.
International Space Station researcher Mike Fossum —
commander of Expedition 29 — puts one of the Smart
SPHERES through its paces. The inset image shows the
Samsung Nexus S™ handset that helps turn the
SPHERES into mobile data acquisition assistants for
space explorers. Photo courtesy of NASA.
Gliding is a very efficient way for getting from point A to
point B. Jumping is a very efficient way of getting into the air at
point A, especially if there are a bunch of obstacles between
point A and point B that you need to be airborne to make it
over. Grasshoppers have been doing this for like a hundred
million years, and roboticists at EPFL are starting to design their
robots with the same kind of jumping talents and expandable
wings as our orthopteran friends.
The jumping part and the crawling around on the ground
part is somewhat impaired by the bot's giant wings, which is why getting this whole folding thing figured out
would be pretty cool.
Locusts aren't the only creatures with wings that cleverly fold up. EPFL is also trying out a system based
on bats. There's also some super secret third bio-inspired design that might be used as a basis from which to
create a gliding robot. Wonder what that will be ...
26 SERVO 02.2012