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Why Google Is Sending Its Smartphones Into Space

A Project Tango-enabled SPHERE in testing

Source: Google via YouTube

A Project Tango-enabled SPHERE in testing

Google (GOOG) and NASA are developing smart robots designed to fly around the International Space Station and eventually take over some menial tasks from astronauts with the aid of custom-built smartphones.

Since 2006, three colorful, volleyball-sized robots have been slowly floating around a 10-foot by 10-foot by 10-foot space inside the ISS. Scientists used them for research projects such as a study on the movement of liquids inside containers in microgravity environments.

NASA now plans to attach smartphones to the flying robots to give them spatial awareness that would enable them to travel throughout the space station. The Android-based phones will track the 3D motion of the robotic spheres while mapping their surroundings. “Our goal is to advance the state of 3D sensing for mobile devices in an effort to give mobile devices human-scale sense of space and motion,” says Johnny Chung Lee, a technical program lead at Google.

Before the phones are attached to the robots, a human will carry each phone around the station so that the mobile device can create a full 3D model of the facility. The robots should be able to navigate autonomously 230 miles above Earth. Within a few years, the project’s leaders say, such robots could shoot video from inside the station, conduct regular sound surveys, and take inventory of the tools on board.

“Inventory management is a huge problem at the ISS,” says Chris Provencher, a project manager for Smart Spheres at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. “Think of something that’s the size of a house and has thousands of tools, and they are spread all over the house—and every few months, you get a new family that has to figure out where everything is.”

It took a lot of tinkering to get Google’s spatially aware phones working in space, Provencher says. The phones’ gravity-vector algorithms had to be removed from the software, and the devices had to be adjusted to accommodate the robots’ slow speeds, which top out at about a foot per second.

NASA began investigating the use of sensors mounted on the robotic spheres three years ago, and researchers quickly realized that smartphones with cameras and accelerometers could provide a cheap alternative to custom-built hardware. At first, astronauts velcroed a Google Nexus S smartphone to a sphere and collected data from the phone’s gyroscope to show how the robotic sphere moves differently in orbit than on Earth. NASA was also able to operate the spheres remotely, from the ground.

“You can imagine, in the future, if you had a free flyer capable of flying outside, you could have crew control it from the inside,” Provencher says. “If the crew has to go out there eventually to do work, this can at least reduce the amount of time they have to spend outside. They can review the damage.”

The new phones are scheduled for launch into space on June 10. Google says the technology may also have applications on earth, such as in gaming and navigation assistance for the visually-impaired. “This is one step on the journey to making these algorithms more robust, more sophisticated, and to make them available to a large number of people,” says Lee.

Kharif is a reporter for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek in Portland, Ore.

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