Science fiction is becoming fact every year. NASA and Google have created a flying robots system that is being tested on the International Space Station.
The SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) are floating robots that are about 10 inches wide. The three robots use CO2 to propel themselves in the zero gravity environment of the ISS. They are going to connect with Google's Project Tango prototype smartphones that have 3D sensors that can map environments around them.
The astronauts on the ISS will test SPHERES ability to fly around and dock themselves to recharge -- the robots' batteries only last 90 minutes. The astronauts will use the Google's Tango phones to map the Space Station three-dimensionally. That data will be fed into the robots, so they have a baseline for their flight patterns. The robots use a variety of sensors to determine their position in 3D space.
Google's smartphones will then be attached to the robot themselves, for future imaging tasks. The robots will also help with mathematical calculations and transmitting a Wi-Fi signal.
Long term, the testing of the flight and docking capabilities of the SPHERES robots will be used to make future robots that will not only fly through the environment of The International Space Station, but in actual space. Such future robots could be used for a variety of imaging uses in space, from scientific exploration to maintenance of other machines in space.
The SPHERES project began in 2000, when 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.
The three satellite robots have been on the International Space Station since 2006, where they have been tested for a variety of tasks and used by the astronauts to help in their own work. The SPHERES robots, now upgraded with the Project Tango smartphones, will help the astronauts with future "housekeeping" tasks that should improve the safety and routine duties of the ISS. These include capturing videos of the space station for future safety reviews, capturing audio data about noise levels, and capturing environmental data about air flow and air quality.
Project Tango is a 3D imaging technology that is found in both prototype smartphones and tablets. The company will release prototypes to developers to test and create software for later this year, in a similar testing program as Google Glass.
The SPHERES system is currently planned to be in use on the ISS until at least 2017.