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NASA's New Free-Flying Robot to Conquer ISS in 2017

Inside the International Space Station, robots are slowly but surely taking over from humans

2 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

NASA's New Free-Flying Robot to Conquer ISS in 2017
Astronaut Greg Chamitoff (left), astronaut Michael Fincke, and American spaceflight participant Richard Garriott floating with SPHERES robots inside the International Space Station in 2008.
Photo: NASA

NASA has had little flying robots called SPHERES on board the International Space Station since 2006. That’s closing in on a decade of successful operations, in that they’ve mostly behaved themselves and done everything that their astronaut masters have asked them to do. So that’s all well and good, but the idea (or one of the ideas) behind putting robots on the ISS was to get them to do useful things, ultimately freeing up the astronauts to look out the windows more often. And, you know, science.

Neither the little SPHERES robots nor Robonaut 2 have been able to contribute to inspection and basic maintenance tasks. NASA has just announced a contest to name a new, ISS-bound robotic system called the “Free Flying Robot,” which will be the next step towards robots that are useful in space.

As the push for manned and automated exploration of the solar system expands, NASA & the NASA Ames Research Center are creating controlled and autonomous robotic devices capable of supplementing flight crew. These “Free Flying Robots” will eventually extend the research & exploration capabilities of Astronauts, as they are capable of working during off-hours and (eventually) in extreme environments. 

NASA says that these robots will “carry mobile sensors such as an RFID reader for logging inventory & inspect items using a built in camera,” which sounds useful to me, and the agency also suggests at least one other scenario for the bot:

While we don’t have any more technical details (yet), we’re expecting that the Free-flyer will incorporate all the incremental upgrades that we’ve seen with SPHERES, including a smartphone-ish brain (which you can sort of make out in the illustration) and a suite of sensors potentially including Project Tango, which would allow the robots to keep track of where they are and avoid obstacles in their way. One notable departure from the SPHERES design is that the free-flyer robot uses fans to propel itself, as opposed to CO2 jets, which allows it to run without a finite fuel source. Self-recharging is planned, too.

Acting as a mobile camera is only one scenario; the important thing is that the robots be reliably controllable in real time by a ground operator, so that they can get stuff done independently of any direct astronaut assistance of supervision. Eventually, more robust versions of robots like these may even be able to exit the station entirely, taking over exterior inspection and maintenance tasks as well.

If you want a shot at naming these robots and designing a patch for the mission (US $1,000 if you win!), check out Topcoder for all the details. Submissions are due 22 October, and the winner will be chosen 2 November.

[ NASA Free Flying Robot Challenge ]

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