With preliminary work showing promise, it shouldn't be long now until robots inside the International Space Station are able to roam the facility freely, all thanks to Wi-Fi.

Called SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites), the volleyball-sized robots have been companions to ISS astronauts since 2006. They are tasked with testing which menial jobs inside the space station may be automated to allow astronauts to focus on more important things.

At the moment, SPHERES are confined to a cube two meters wide fitted with five ultrasound beacons transmitting locating signals much like how GPS functions on Earth.

Wouldn't the robots be more useful if they could travel beyond their cube and around the space station? This is what Terry Fong from NASA's Ames Research Center and colleagues are exploring, working on guiding the SPHERES with the space station's existing Wi-Fi connection.

To determine Wi-Fi strength in the space station, an astronaut used a smartphone to measure signal intensity from two routers placed at different points in the ISS. Data from this measurement was then used in creating a map with capabilities to locate SPHERES anywhere within a 1.59-meter radius, accurately identifying which module a robot was in.

The work Fong and colleagues did was showcased at the IEEE Symposium Series on Computational Intelligence held in Florida back in December.

In 2011, SPHERES were also tested if they would work with a smartphone controller, turning the robots into remote-controlled assistants for astronauts in the space station.

Each of the SPHERES were fitted with onboard power and computing, navigational and propulsion software as well as sensors and cameras to enhance capabilities. GSM cellular communication chips in the smartphones were also removed to prevent interference with electronics in the ISS.

On Jan. 6, SpaceX's CRS-5 will be delivering crew supplies and cargo for the ISS, launching from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The commercial resupply flight will also be bringing the CATS instrument, which will be used for measuring clouds as well as the distribution and location of dust, smoke, pollution and other particulates in the Earth's atmosphere.

The current ISS mission is Expedition 42, which will end in March. Current crew members include Elena Serova, Alexander Samokutyaev, Anton Shkaplerov, Terry Virts and Samantha Cristoforetti, with Mission Commander Barry Wilmore.

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