Nasa's SPHERES robots used for experiments on the International Space Station will get new 'brains'

Google's 3D sensing smartphones to go to space

Nasa plans to use Google’s innovative Tango smartphones in a robotic experiment on the International Space Station.

Scheduled to launch on 11 July, the Tango smartphones, not yet commercially available, will become brains and eyes of Nasa’s SPHERES satellites.

"We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors,” said Smart SPHERES project manager Chris Provencher. “As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realized the answer was in our hands, let's just use smartphones."

Shipped to the ISS in 2006, the SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites), designed to be capable of very precise movement, have been used to test instructions for spacecraft performing autonomous rendezvous and docking manoeuvres.

Inspired by a scene from the movie Star Wars where Luke Skywalker spars with a hovering globe, the soccer-ball sized robots can be guided around the space station's microgravity interior, propelled by tiny blasts of CO2 at about an inch per second.

 In 2010, engineers at Nasa's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, looked for ways to make the devices smarter, with the ultimate goal of making them capable of taking over some routine tasks from the astronauts.

First they used commercially available smartphones and altered them by adding extra batteries and a shatter-proof displays before sending the handsets to the space station, where astronauts used Velcro to attach them to the side of the SPHERES. That gave the robots a wealth of new sensing and visual capabilities - but still not enough to move around the station as easily as the engineers wanted.

Looking to improve the robots, NASA recently turned to the experimental smartphones Google created to encourage innovation in its push for consumer mobile devices that can make sense of space as easily as people do.

The Project Tango handsets include a motion-tracking camera and an infrared depth sensor similar to Microsoft's Kinect add-on for the Xbox. The sensors will detect sharp angles inside the space station and create a 3D map that lets the SPHERES navigate from one module to another.

"This type of capability is exactly what we need for a robot that's going to do tasks anywhere inside the space station," Provencher said. "It has to have a very robust navigation system."

Nasa's phones have been split open so that the touchscreen and sensors face outward when mounted on the robots. They also include space-tested batteries and plastic connectors to replace the Velcro.

Google wants the technology showcased by Project Tango to become ubiquitous, helping retailers create detailed 3D representations of their shops and letting gamers make their homes into virtual battlegrounds.

It also teamed up with LG recently to launch a Project Tango tablet to encourage developers to experiment with its features.

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