Android phones to be 'brains' of space station robots

NASA is using smart phones to make some prototype robots aboard the International Space Station, well, a little smarter.

Scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center are incorporating Nexus S smart phones into a trio of circular floating robots known in agencyspeak as Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES).

The overall goal of the effort is to provide both astronauts on the ISS and ground control with a mobile system capable of moving around the space station and performing various tasks such as taking sensor readings or performing visual/video inspections.

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The SPHERES robots have been on the ISS since 2006. The floating robots were initially put on the station to study satellite docking dynamics for future spacecraft. One of the ideas behind the robots was also to have them serve as onboard helpers for astronauts. The Nexus phones, Android operating system devices developed by Google and Samsung, are attached to the outside of the robot and connected to their internal circuitry via a serial cable.

The phones, which recently arrived on the station, greatly enhances their potential as an automated assistant, said Mark Micire, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

As many jobs robots do, SPHERES could take over the dull, time-consuming jobs aboard the station, such as taking radiation measurements and monitoring noise levels. “The idea that the robots can go around the station and do these mundane tasks is a possibility,” Micire said.

Besides helping the crew, NASA plans to have the robots controlled from ground control back on Earth. For example, if the crew is asleep and there is a sensor alert or some other issue, ground control could remotely have the robots make an inspection without waking the crew. Although the robots have only been used inside the station, there is also the possibility of using them in space to inspect the outside of the station. The SPHERES machines use tiny jets of carbon dioxide to maneuver and move.

NASA scientists looked at a number of handheld devices before they settled on the Nexus, Micire said. One of the major draws for the Nexus is that it has a powerful computing capability coupled with a camera and a variety of built-in sensors. According to NASA, the Nexus S is the first commercial smart phone certified by the agency to fly on the space shuttle and to operate on the space station.

The device has a 4-inch touchscreen, a 1 GHz processor, digital camera, gyroscope, accelerometer, proximity and light sensors, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi networking, and 16 G of internal memory. The phone's open-source Android platform allowed scientists to program the devices to work with the SPHERES robots. “That little phone has enough horse power to fly a miniature spacecraft,” Micire said.

Although the Nexus S phones are already aboard the ISS, the first tests are not scheduled until September. The initial question that must be worked out is whether the phones’ gyroscopes and accelerometers, which were designed for playing games on Earth, will operate in space, Micire said. Other considerations include making sure that the phone’s camera works in the station’s lighting and connecting the station's Wi-Fi network to the station’s communications system to link back to ground control.

A test for the communications link is scheduled for December.

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