Smartphone-Controlled Robots Aid Astronauts on Space Station

3 SPHERES Satellites
Three satellites fly in formation as part of the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) investigation. This image was taken during Expedition 14 in the Destiny laboratory module. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA's last space shuttle flight may have carried the first iPhone into space, but Android phones are doing the real work of assisting astronauts. The three volleyball-sized robots that help workers on the International Space Station have received an upgrade that links them to Android OS phones, allowing Mission Control to command the robots from the ground.

The smartphone-enhanced SPHERES robots would serve as extra eyes alongside the robotic hands of NASA's humanoid Robonaut 2. Together, they could do the work a space station crewmember, performing dull but necessary inventory or environmental surveys while humans focus on the more crucial tasks.

"That way, astronauts can spend more time performing science experiments and other work, instead of routine maintenance," said Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "In the long run, free-flying robots like SPHERES could also be used to inspect the exterior of the space station or future deep-space vehicles." [Photos: Robonaut 2, Robot Butler for Astronauts]

The MIT-built robots will each connect with a Nexus S smartphone — the first commercial smartphone certified by NASA for use on the space shuttle and space station. The smartphone is loaded with Google's Android open-source platform that may even allow members of the public to make software for space experiments.

A prototype smartphone-enhanced SPHERES. (Image credit: NASA/Ames/DW Wheeler)

The smartphone upgrades for the SPHERES robots were delivered to the space station in July by NASA's shuttle Atlantis, which flew the final mission of the space shuttle program. The flight also carried two iPhone 4 phones in orbit for use by the space station crew.

"The availability of the Android source code allows us to customize the smartphone to be used as a compact, low-cost, low-power computer, rather than just as a phone," said Mark Micire, a software engineer in the NASA Ames Intelligent Robotics Group.

The enhanced SPHERES could also act like a remote-controlled video camera that can capture interviews with astronauts in the seemingly weightless environment of the space station. Future versions capable of operating in the vacuum of space might someday assist spacewalkers or perform visual surveys outside the space station.

It's not a bad future for a robot that took inspiration from the remote droid which tested Luke Skywalker's lightsaber skills in the original "Star Wars."

"The space station is just the first step to using remotely controlled robots to support human exploration," said Chris Moore, program executive in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

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