NASA to Ship 3D Google Smartphones For SPHERES to ISS

Jul 07, 2014 04:04 PM EDT | Matt Mercuro

NASA has announced that it plans to use Google smartphones with next-generation 3D sensing to enhance its Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES,) which could eventually take over daily responsibilities for astronauts or even handle dangerous duties outside the International Space Station.

As part of Google's Project Tango augmented reality initiative, the phones will be aboard a cargo ship scheduled to launch to ISS on July 11.

The soccer-ball sized robots can be guided around ISS' microgravity interior, thanks to tiny blasts of CO2, at about an inch per second, according to Reuters.

NASA sent its SPHERES into space back in 2006, but they weren't able to do much. Four years later, engineers at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, decided it was time to look for ways to make the devices smarter.

"We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors. As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realized the answer was in our hands," said Smart SPHERES project manager Chris Provencher told Reuters in an interview last week with Reuters. "Let's just use smartphones."

After buying phones at Best Buy, they altered them by adding extra batteries and shatter-proof displays before sending them to the space station.

Once arriving at ISS, astronauts were able to use Velcro to attach them to the side of the SHERES, according to NASA.

The phones gave the robots a "wealth of new sensing and visual capabilities," but it still wasn't enough for them to move around the station as easily as the engineers hoped, according to Reuters.

Recently, NASA turned to Google smartphones to encourage innovation in its quest for consumer mobile devices capable of making sense of space as easily as people do.

The Project Tango handsets come with a motion-tracking camera and an infrared depth sensor, which is comparable to Microsoft's Kinect add-on for the Xbox game console.

Sensors can detect sharp angles inside the space station and create a 3D map, according to NASA. This allows the SPHERES to navigate from one module to the next.

"This type of capability is exactly what we need for a robot that's going to do tasks anywhere inside the space station," Provencher said. "It has to have a very robust navigation system."

The NASA phones have all been split open so that the touchscreens and sensors face outward when mounted on the robots, according to Reuters. Space-tested batteries and plastic connectors are also included to replace the Velcro.

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