NASA has announced plans to take advantage of Project Tango on board the International Space Station to guide SPHERES robots’ navigation within the facility. SPHERES are zero-gravity autonomous machines being developed to serve as robotic assistants to help astronauts and independently perform tasks on the International Space Station.
Until now, the small automata have been equipped with sensors capable of detecting their position thanks to the interaction with the sounds emitted from the speakers on the walls. It is a complex system for localization using triangulation and limited to an area equal to a little more than 6 cubic meters.
For almost a year, ATAP has been working with a team at the NASA Ames Research Center to integrate a Tango prototype into robots that work inside the International Space Station.
The project, initiated by Google, allows researchers to create a 3D map of the environment surrounding via infrared, allowing the robot to move around and avoid obstacles in their path without having to constantly correct trajectory. As the robots use CO2 jets to control movement in zero-g, the less carbon dioxide emitted into the confined space the easier it is for astronauts to control oxygen levels.
More importantly, with this project update the SPHERES unit shall not be bound to a defined space, but will be free to move anywhere, thus greatly extending the usefulness for the crew.
According to the Google ATAP team, for the first time in history of space program, this program will enable autonomous navigation of a floating robotic platform 230 miles above the surface of the Earth.
“The development that we’re doing is just getting started. And this is the first device that we’ve built,” said Joel Hesch, an ATAP software engineer. “If you can do sensor fusion and perception on a mobile phone, you can enable so many use cases that can be used on other devices like SPHERES, that benefit the lives of people, that can really impact in a way that wasn’t possible before.”
In the future, the same technology behind Google’s Project Tango can also be used with different automata, as pointed out by the project manager Chris Provencher. Robonaut for example, a robot with human features, could assist astronauts during exploration missions or dangerous interventions on board or outside the space station.
Google unveiled Project Tango in February, showcasing a prototype smartphone with sensors that can identify and manage areas and volumes, thus obtaining a prominent role not only for geolocation but also for finding positions in indoor environments.
The project opens the door to professional developers willing to push beyond their own opportunities. Project Tango also seeks to help developers to create assistance systems for the blind, new augmented reality solutions, new types of gaming, analysis systems for environments interior designs, measurements, even applications to locate a product in a supermarket, and more.