NASA Robotic Bees To Join Astronauts On The International Space Station

By Naia Carlos | Apr 05, 2019 07:47 AM EDT
NASA announces plans to send two Astrobee robots to the ISS. The photo shows a rendering of an Astrobee free flyer showing key sensing and human interface components, including the 6 cameras. (Photo : NASA)

A couple of "Astrobees" are set to join the crew at the International Space Station to help out with chores and special experiments by the end of April 2019.

Bees are known as one of Earth's busiest and most hardworking animals, so it's not surprising that NASA is taking inspiration from them for their newest robotic helpers in space.

Meet The Astrobees

Measuring at just a square foot, these flying robots are expected to make an impact on the ISS by assisting in routine chores, contributing in the development and testing of zero-gravity technology, and providing additional "eyes and ears" for the crew.

According to NASA, the Astrobee robots can operate without astronaut supervision. With these helpers buzzing around the station, the ISS crew can simply leave the mundane tasks to these robotic assistants and concentrate completely on their other duties.

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NASA is planning to use the astrobees to test magnetic propulsion technology in the ISS' zero-gravity environment by installing magnetic propulsion modules in the astrobees. This kind of technology is an important step in the development of telescopes that could detect signs of life in distant galaxies.

Flight controllers can keep track of the ISS more easily with the extra eyes and ears they gain through the Astrobee bots.

These worker bees are packed with features including cameras, sensors, touchscreen, speaker, and microphone, among others. With its mechanical arm, an astrobee can manage an array of tools on its own.

Building The Astrobees

NASA scientists developed the Astrobee robots at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, where the team built an ISS mockup to craft the best robots that could navigate the station once it gets there.

The project is inspired by the success of NASA's first robotic assistants dubbed SPHERES.

Each cube-shaped robot fly with fan propellers, so it can move in any direction. With cameras and sensors, it can effectively navigate the ISS and avoid causing collisions inside.

The Astrobee robots are powered with batteries, but it can dock itself to a power station autonomously when it needs to recharge.

Such robots are expected to play a significant role in human expeditions in space in the future.

"Learning how robots can best work with humans in close proximity will be key for exploring the Moon and other destinations," NASA explains in a release.

Two of the three existing Astrobee robots will head to the ISS by the end of April 2019.

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