Nasa equips space robots with smartphones

SPHERES The bowling-ball-sized robots are said to have been inspired by Star Wars

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Nasa plans to send Google's 3D smartphones into space to function as the "eyes and brains" of free-flying robots inside the Space Station.

The robots, known as Spheres (Synchronised Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental satellites), currently have limited capabilities.

It is hoped the smartphones, powered by Google's Project Tango, will equip the robots with more functionality.

The robots have been described by experts as "incredibly clever".

When Nasa's robots first arrived at the International Space Station in 2006, they were only capable of precise movements using small jets of CO2, which propelled the devices forwards at around an inch per second.

"We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors," Spheres project manager Chris Provencher told Reuters.

"As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realised the answer was in our hands. Let's just use smartphones."

In an attempt to make the robots smarter and of more use to astronauts, engineers at Nasa's Ames Research Centre sent cheap smartphones to the space station, which they had purchased from Best Buy, an American electronics shop.

Astronauts then attached the phones to the Spheres, giving them more visual and sensing capabilities.

Helping astronauts

Looking to further improve the robots, Nasa turned to Google's Project Tango.

Tango uses the 3D cameras embedded in Google's latest smartphones to give the handset a human-scale understanding of space and motion.

Once at the space station and attached to the Spheres, the phones will use their onboard motion-tracking cameras and infrared depth sensors to safely navigate around the ISS.

These more advanced phones will be launched into space on 11 July and are intended to replace the earlier models.

Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, told the BBC: "This is an incredibly clever way to unite different technologies in an unexpected way.

"It will be interesting to see how much this inspires Google to use this technology for its own robotics development following on the several world-class robot companies it has purchased in the last year."

Dr Fumiya Iida, lecturer at the department of engineering at the University of Cambridge, praised Nasa's ingenuity.

"Robots were and still are usually very expensive and complex, thus they often don't match to a cost-benefit balance. By using consumer electronics such as smartphones, we can significantly reduce down the development cost for robots with high-performance capabilities which were not possible 10 years ago."

Nasa envisions a future in which its spatially-aware Spheres can help astronauts with daily chores and risky tasks.

Dr Walterio Mayol of Bristol University's Robotics Lab told the BBC that the basic idea behind the mapping system, a technique known as Slam (simultaneous localisation and mapping), was developed substantially in the UK ten years ago.

He said that while the robots are an impressive start, they currently have no arms, which could limit their potential.

The Spheres' creators are said to have been inspired by Luke Skywalker's training droid, from the film Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, although it is unlikely lasers will be fitted to the device.

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