Google and NASA team up to build autonomous space robots [VIDEO]

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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The tech behind Google’s Project Tango smartphone, which can calculate a quarter-million 3D measurements every second, finally provided NASA with the capability they needed to build fully autonomous space robots – and that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Google’s Advanced Technologies And Projects group announced Thursday they were woking on the project with NASA, and equipping the space agency’s Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) space robots.

These robots will be outfitted with individual Project Tango smartphones, which have capabilities and hardware far beyond anything available on the market. The phones’ extremely advanced mapping abilities will allow SPHERES to map their locations and move free of human control.

SPHERES are bowling-ball sized free-flying robots with their own onboard power, propulsion, navigation and computer equipment, and are designed to service satellites, assist in vehicle assembly, determine flying spacecraft formation configurations, control other robots via telecommunication, and more.

“Researchers concluded that tele-operated robotic spacecraft can conduct repairs, maintenance, inspections and monitoring, and de-orbit malfunctioning or defunct spacecraft,” a description on NASA’s website states.

“This is a really interesting opportunity for us to take the work of Project Tango and put it in a really unique environment that’s difficult to re-create here on Earth,” Google ATAP software engineer James Fung said in the team’s YouTube video announcement.

The purpose of the robots is to accomplish tasks that so far have always been performed by astronauts within spacecraft like the International Space Station, which requires constant and time-consuming routine maintenance, control and care aside from the research and experiments at the core of the station’s mission.

“What’s really exciting about the collaboration with the NASA Ames team [NASA’s research division] is to see how out prototype device can be paired with the science and sensing abilities of spheres,” ATAP team engineer Joel Hesch said.

Using the phones’ built-in motion-tracking cameras and depth sensors – which allow them to detect orientation in relation to everything around them – the robots will be able to create 3D maps of their environments and avoid bumping into walls or objects while going about their missions.

Project Tango is similar to another development on its way out of the Silicon Valley Internet giant called Project Ara – a smartphone composed of interchangeable modular pieces designed to allow for a high-level of individual user customization. Project Ara could potentially be perfect for future projects with NASA, which designs and constructs devices for very specific purposes.

The robots have already undergone their first test with Project Tango smartphone-equipped SPHERES during a zero-G airplane training flight.


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