I’m sure many of us have grown up watching sci-fi movies with helpful little robots running around assisting the crew. Think Farscape; think Red Dwarf; or Disney’s “Black Hole”, portraying characters like Vincent, below.
It stands to reason. There are some things humans can’t do in space. We’re flesh and blood, after all, and the environment out there is rather hostile. Even in “real life” we need robots to free up valuable time for astronauts living and working aboard, say, the International Space Station, where there are always experiment to run or studies to complete.
Did you know that for more than fifteen years, robotic helpers have been a consistent and evolving presence on the International Space Station? They’ve proven invaluable, because crew time on the ISS is a precious commodity. They need to make the most of it. And for a while now, a project called SPHERES – Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites – have been helping astronauts in all sorts of innovative ways.
The size of a volleyball, SPHERES employ AA batteries and bottles of carbon dioxide to propel themselves around in a microgravity environment, and are able to examine materials, conduct experiments, connect to smartphones, and test new hardware. They’ve even been a platform for student robotics competitions.
All well and good. But in our reach for the stars, we’re always looking for ways to improve so that future projects profit from designs that are innovative and mission specific.
Take the latest project to come from the Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. Termed ASTROBEE, each robot will, as the name suggests, stay as busy as a bee flying around the space station and assisting the crew with routine tasks. They will also help researchers on the ground carry out experiments, test new technologies and study human-robot interaction in space. And that’s important, because learning how robots can best work with humans in close proximity will be key for exploring the Moon and other destinations.
Each Astrobee is a compact one-foot-cube, propelled by fans so they can move in any direction and turn on any axis in space. They are equipped with cameras and sensors to help navigate their environment and avoid obstacles; they have robotic arms for handling cargo or running experiments; and they are programmed to recharge themselves when their batteries run low. An added feature is the fact that they can also be remotely operated by mission controllers, thereby serving as extra pair of eyes and ears on the station itself. Obviously, Astrobee serves as a new experimental platform for scientists and engineers, while proving an invaluable part of the team.
As you will have noted, they’re quite a bit smaller than their predecessor and far more multifunctional. Great news, as guest scientists will be able to use this latest advance to carry out investigations that will help to develop new technology – both hardware and software – for future missions. And since Astrobees are modular, they can be upgraded, giving researchers and scientists a diverse platform for performing a wider range of experiments inside the station itself.
This bodes well for the future, as robots will play a significant part in the NASA’s endeavors to return to the Moon, and from there, onward and outward into the Solar System.
Even so, we’ve still got a long way to go until we meet the likes of this fellow, quoting the immortal line: “To Astrobee or not to bee. That is the question.”