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Google Project Tango lifts off with NASA into space

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Google has big plans for Project Tango. When the 3D-mapping smartphone concept was revealed, many wondered what Google's plans for the futuristic device were. Now, Google's Advanced Technology and Projects group has announced that it will partner with NASA to take Project Tango into space.

ATAP has been working with the NASA Ames Research Center for about a year on plans to bring Project Tango to the International Space Station. One of the group's plans is to insert Project Tango smartphones into robots that work at ISS.

At this point, the teams have created zero-gravity autonomous machines with Project Tango smartphones onboard called Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES. The bowling-ball size robots will theoretically act as assistants to the astronauts on ISS, handling important tasks.

Google ATAP says that one of the SPHERES' projects will be to create a 3D map of the station. The team also said in a Google+ post that they plan to "for the first time in history, enable autonomous navigation of a floating robotic platform 230 miles above the surface of the Earth."

Of course, before SPHERES with Project Tango smartphones onboard can lift off into space, ATAP and NASA have to test them out first here on Earth. So naturally, Google decided to do a zero gravity flight test with the Project Tango SPHERES.

"Simulation doesn't work. We've got to fly it," ATAP program manager Ryan Hickman said. "What this zero g flight is gonna let us do is test all of the systems as they would operate in space."

The ATAP and NASA Ames teams worked together to test the SPHERES in zero gravity conditions using the G-Force One 727 at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. Never one to let a promotional opportunity pass, Google filmed the whole thing and put a very cool video on YouTube, showing the SPHERES in action and a bunch of astronauts looking very, very happy to be bouncing around without gravity.

"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."

Although Project Tango was only announced in February, Google and NASA expect to launch the Project Tango SPHERES into orbit this summer. Between Project Ara and Project Tango, it's clear that Google is nothing if not ambitious.

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