NASA to use Google's Project Tango to update space robot

Google's 3D tech slated to fly to space station aboard Cygnus cargo craft

Robotic spheres aboard the International Space Station soon will will be quite a bit smarter, using Google technology to fly safely and adroitly around the orbiter.

NASA's Ames Research Center is teaming up with Google's Project Tango team to add the company's new 3D technology to the tech tools aboard the Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus cargo spacecraft.

Cygnus is scheduled to lift off for a journey to the space station at 12:52 pm EDT on Sunday, July 13 filled with about 3300 pounds of supplies. The launch was postponed from last Saturday due to severe weather.

The Cygnus cargo craft sits atop the Antares rocket, which is about as tall as a 13-story building, as it waits a planned Sunday launch. The water tower on the right holds about 200,000 gallons of water for cooling and noise suppression during liftoff. (Image: NASA)

Along with the Project Tango equipment, Cygnus will deliver food for the astronauts living on the station, spare parts for scientific experiments and extra hardware.

Google's technology comes out of Project Tango, an effort to create 3D-enabled tablets and smartphones.

The astronauts will integrate the Google tech with a robotic platform that will work inside the space station.

Smart SPHERES is a prototype free-flying space robot based on NASA's Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites. NASA has been testing SPHERES on the space station since 2011.

Chris Provencher, Smart Spheres project manager at NASA contractor SGT, said the astronauts will upgrade the robots to use Google's Tango 3D smartphone, which uses a custom 3D sensor and multiple cameras.

Starting in early August, the astronauts will turn on the sensors that enable the 3D navigation and take the SPHERES throughout the station, mapping its entire layout.

About a month later, NASA should know if the map is accurate. At that point, they'll upload it to the floating robots and they can begin using that map to navigate throughout the space station.

"It'll be a big advance," said Provencher. "The robots have been restrained to flying in a small 2-foot by 2-foot by 2-foot area. One hurdle we still need to get over is to fly that robot anywhere in the space station and this should do that."

NASA has been looking to use small flying robots to perform tasks on the space station. For instance, Provencher said the SPHERES could use a camera to give flight controllers in Houston views of the entire inside of the station for situational awareness. The flying robots also will carry air quality and noise sensors.

"These are all tasks the crew does for themselves right now," said Provencher. "We're trying to offload crew tasks to give them more time for science instead of housekeeping."

The SPHERES robots now on the space station are prototypes. If the 3D mapping navigation capability works as hoped, it will be part of the production version of the devices.

"There would have to be some kind of design changes to make it fully autonomous," said Provencher. "Right now, the SPHERE is used for testing, not tasks. The idea is to let the free-flying robot have purpose and be useful by letting it freely roam throughout the space station."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at Twitter @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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