SPHERES Nasa's Free-Flying Smart Spheres

Nasa tests floating robot servant for Space Station powered by Android phone | Mail Online

Floating robots are everywhere in science fiction. But the difficulty of keeping a heavy object 'floating' on earth has ensured they remain thoroughly ficitonal on our planet.

But in the low-gravity environment of the International Space Station, 240 miles up, it's a different matter.

Nasa has just completed trials of a real, floating robot - a free-flying Smart Sphere which is controlled by a Samsung Nexus phone.
A Nasa astronaut controls one of the Smart Spheres in testing on the Space Station last month: The robots can fly, navigate and record information all by themselves

The Human Exploration Telerobotics project, one of NASA's new, high-value Technology Demonstration Missions, equipped the compact, free-flying satellites -- known as Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES -- with a Samsung Nexus S™ handset that features Google’s open-source Android™ platform.

Each volleyball-sized SPHERES has its own onboard power, propulsion, computing and navigational software. Adding the smartphone transforms the satellite into a free-flying robot, or "Smart SPHERES" -- complete with a compact, low-power, low-cost embedded computer and built-in cameras and sensors to enhance and expand robotic operations.

NASA - The Force is Strong with NASA's Smartphone-Powered Satellite

This close-up view shows three bowling-ball-sized free-flying satellites called Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA.

MIT undergrads flight-test a prototype droid onboard NASA's KC-135 reduced gravity aircraft. Image Credit: NASA.


The MIT Space Systems Laboratory developed the SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites) laboratory environment to provide DARPA, NASA, and other researchers with a long term, replenishable, and upgradable testbed for the validation of high risk metrology, control, and autonomy technologies for use in formation flight and autnomous docking, rendezvous and reconfiguration algorithms. These technologies are critical to the operation of distributed satellite and docking missions such as Terrestrial Planet Finder and Orbital Express.

To approximate the dynamics that will be encountered during these missions, the testbed consists of three small, self-contained vehicles, or "spheres," which can control their relative positions and orientations, and is operable on a 2-D laboratory platform, NASA's KC-135, and the International Space Station. SPHERES draws upon the MODE family of dynamics and control laboratories (STS-40, 42, 48, 62, MIR) by providing a cost-effective laboratory with direct astronaut interaction that exploits the micro-gravity conditions of space.

Here is a video of a recent Test Session aboard the ISS: