NASA plans to use the handsets to beef up its Synchronized
Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites, or
SPHERES, which could eventually take over daily chores for
astronauts or even handle risky duties outside of the vessel.
The phones, part of Google's Project Tango augmented reality
initiative, will be aboard a cargo spacecraft scheduled to launch on
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.
When NASA sent its SPHERES to the space station in 2006 they were
capable of precise movement but little else. In 2010, engineers at
NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, looked for
ways to make the devices smarter.
"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."
They bought phones at Best Buy 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.
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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
"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
It also teamed up with LG recently to launch a Project Tango tablet
to encourage developers to experiment with its features.
(Reporting by Noel Randewich; Editing by Ken Wills)
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