At first, NASA strapped smartphones with Velcro to their Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES), hoping the savvy smartphone technology would improve the bots’ abilities. Then, NASA turned to Google’s new Project Tango 3D smartphones, complete with sensors.
“We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors. As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realized the answer was in our hands,” Smart SPHERES project manager Chris Provencher told Reuters in an interview last week. “Let’s just use smartphones.”
The new 3D smartphones from Google contain motion sensors, which Reuters likened to Xbox Kinect. This enables the spherical bots to maneuver inside a spacecraft, freeing astronauts to complete other tasks.
“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.”
Originally, NASA personnel went to Best Buy and bought regular smartphones to mount on 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,” NDTV Gadgets reported.
With the new 3D smartphones, however, SPHERES will be able to find their way around space stations via sensors. According to Reuters and NASA, the spherical robots are inspired by a similar bot fought by Luke Skywalker during his lightsaber training in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
“In 1999, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor David Miller showed the movie, ‘Star Wars’ to his students on their first day of class,” NASA said on their website. “Following the scene where Luke Skywalker spars with a floating droid ‘remote,’ Miller stood up and pointed: ‘I want you to build me some of those.’ So they did.”
See the SPHERES in action below.