News From Space: Astronaut Robots

spheres_1As if it weren’t bad enough that they are replacing workers here on Earth, now they are being designed to replace us in space! At least, that’s the general idea behind Google and NASA’s collaborative effort to make SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites). As the name suggests, these robots are spherical, floating machines that use small CO2 thrusters to move about and performing chores usually done by astronauts.

Earlier this month, NASA announced it’s plan to launch some SPHERES aboard an unmanned Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station to begin testing. That launch took place on July 11th, and the testing has since begun. Powered by Tango, Google’s prototype smartphone that comes with 3D sensors that map the environment around them, the three satellites were used to perform routine tasks.

nasa-antares-launch-photoNASA has sent SPHERES to the ISS before, but all they could really do was move around using their small CO2 thruster. With the addition of a Tango “brain” though, the hope is that the robots will actually be able to assist astronauts on some tasks, or even completely carry out some mundane chores. In addition, the mission is to prepare the robots for long-term use and harmonized them to the ISS’ environment.

This will consist of the ISS astronauts testing SPHERES ability to fly around and dock themselves to recharge (since their batteries only last 90 minutes), and use the Tango phones to map the Space Station three-dimensionally. This data will be fed into the robots so they have a baseline for their flight patterns. The smartphones will be attached to the robots for future imaging tasks, and they will help with mathematical calculations and transmitting a Wi-Fi signal.

spheres_0In true science fiction fashion, the SPHERES project began in 2000 after MIT professor David W. Miller was inspired by the “Star Wars” scene where Luke Skywalker is being trained in handling a lightsaber by a small flying robot. Miller asked his students to create a similar robot for the aerospace Industry. Their creations were then sent to the ISS in 2006, where they have been ever since.

As these early SPHERES aren’t equipped with tools, they will mostly just fly around the ISS, testing out their software. The eventual goal is to have a fleet of these robots flying around in formation, fixing things, docking with and moving things about, and autonomously looking for misplaced items. If SPHERES can also perform EVAs (extra-vehicular activity, space walks), then the risk of being an astronaut would be significantly reduced.

spheresIn recent years there has been a marked shift towards the use of off-the-shelf hardware in space (and military) applications. This is partly due to tighter budgets, and partly because modern technology has become pretty damn sophisticated. As Chris Provencher, SPHERES project manager, said in an interview with Reuters:

We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors [to the SPHERES]. As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realized the answer was in our hands. Let’s just use smartphones.

The SPHERES system is currently planned to be in use on the ISS until at least 2017. Combined with NASA’s Robonaut, there are some fears that this is the beginning of a trend where astronauts are replaced entirely by robots. But considering how long it would take to visit a nearby star, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. At least until all of the necessary terraforming have been carried out in advance of the settlers.

So perhaps robots will only be used to do the heavy lifting, or the work that is too dull, dangerous or dirty for regular astronauts – just like drones. Hopefully, they won’t be militarized though. We all saw how that went! And be sure to check out this video of SPHERES being upgraded with Project Tango, courtesy of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP):



A robot and an astronaut shake hands… That might sound like the set up for a really cheesy joke, but in fact, it was a moment in history. Back in February of this year, a first occurred when Daniel Burbank. the commander of the International Space Station, shook hands with the first ever Robonaut. Controlled by ground crews, and currently lacking in full-body motion – they aint got no legs! – this does represent a big step forward in robotics.

As things stand, it is not yet clear if this represents a plan to “unman” space, or just supplement astronauts with humanoid machines that are capable of performing rote tasks and the more labor intensive aspects of space travel. But given the fact that space travel still requires adaptation and flexibility as much as calculations and precision, and that no amount of remote control can equal the thrill of actually being there, I’m thinking human astronauts are going to be around for a long time.

Check out this video of the Robonaut and Burbank making their historic handshake!


Real-life Robocop?

Imagine if you will, a machine that gives disabled police officers a chance to continue working with the force, but from the comfort and safety of an office. Rather than walking the beat and putting themselves in harm’s way, they could telepresence themselves to the streets through a robot body, one which does the job of getting around and locating offenders, while they issue the arrests and infractions. This is the concept that lies behind a new breed of patrol robot that is being developed by Lieutenant Commander Jeremy Robins and Florida International University’s Discovery Lab.

Initially, Robins began this program as a way of bringing some of the thousands of disabled police officers and soldiers in the U.S. back to the workforce. Ultimately, this would call for the creation of a “telebot” that is not only equipped with the latest in wireless technology, but also one that can get around and take some serious punishment. In many ways, this is an elaboration on the concept of Robocop, the hybrid man-machine that stole our hearts back in the 80’s with his signature lines: “You’re move creep!” and “Dead or alive, you are coming with me!” And let’s not forget that sweet gun trick!

But of course, these new robots would be asked to do less adventurous things than the gun-toting cyborg who saved Old Detroit. In addition to working as patrol officers, they would responsible for handling all the regular tasks of police officers. These would include responding to 911 calls, writing traffic tickets, patrolling specific routes, and staying vigilant for law breakers. In addition, they could also be charged with safe guarding government and high-value facilities from terrorists or other criminals, doing both surveillance and acting as an on-site security force.

Early sketches of the robot give some indication of what it would look like. Essentially, it would have to be mobile, which would call for a wheeled chassis. It would have to be ambulatory, which would require arms. And it ought to have some semblance of a person, since it would be expected to carry the officer’s voice and interact with people. In essence, even little children need to be able to approach this robot and ask it if it can help them find their mothers.

An early rendition, shown here, has been appropriately named “Tough Guy”. Like all other design ideas, the end result calls for a robot that has a two-wheeled chassis, a mobile upper body, and a head that carries a two-way audio and video device so that the officer commanding it can both view and interact with the robots and environment and other people.

Already, the Discovery Lab has announced that the end product will be military grade and usable by the army under the 2 million dollar initiative that DARPA’s (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) set up years ago. Robins is also trying to get NASA to sign on with its Robonaut tech – a program to develop a robotic astronaut. So while the end product will be used primarily by police, plans are already in place to expand it to other areas – such as military operations and unmanned space exploration – as well.