NASA links SPHERES robots to Android smartphones

Posted by Lydia Leavitt

If you thought little Android helpers only came in the form of green robots, think again.

According to NASA, there are three volleyball-sized robots aboard the International Space Station (ISS) linked with Android OS phones so Mission Control can manage them remotely from the ground.

The SPHERES robots provide Mission Control with an extra pair of eyes in space and work alongside the Robonaut 2 humanoid robot. The robots are tasked with taking inventory and completing environmental surveys so humans aboard the space station can work on higher-priority items.

"That way, astronauts can spend more time performing science experiments and other work, instead of routine maintenance," explained Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA's Ames Research Center.

"In the long run, free-flying robots like SPHERES could also be used to inspect the exterior of the space station or future deep-space vehicles."

MIT built the SPHERE robots to connect with the Nexus S Android-powered smartphone, which makes it the first commercial smartphone certified for use in space certified by NASA. (Note: the recent shuttle mission also carried two iPhone 4 handsets for the crew).

"The availability of the Android source code allows us to customize the smartphone to be used as a compact, low-cost, low-power computer, rather than just as a phone," said Mark Micire, a software engineer in the NASA Ames Intelligent Robotics Group.

The folks at NASA hope that the SPHERES robots will one day be able to capture video interviews and even venture outside the space station to aid in visual surveys.

"The space station is just the first step to using remotely controlled robots to support human exploration," said Chris Moore, program executive in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.