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Google takes on space robots with Project Tango

22 Apr 2014  | Kevin Fogarty

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Many believe that Google has done enough for non-traditional gadget design for one week after its one-day public sale of Google Glass smart goggles and its announcement of building contact lenses smart enough to see for the people wearing them.

However, the April 16 debut of the modular, endlessly customisable Project Ara was only the appetizer in Google's you-won't-believe-this-is-a-phone sweepstakes.

Project Tango—a Project Ara spinoff that includes a vision processor, a depth sensor, a motion-tracking camera, and hardware sophisticated enough to build a detailed three-dimensional model of its surroundings by collecting precise motion and positional data 250,000 times per second—has become a space bowling ball.


The Samsung Nexus S-equipped SPHERE robotic satellite sits on its charging post before being launched to the ISS in late 2013. (Source: NASA)

Since 2003, NASA has been using the enclosed but near-zero-gravity environment of the International Space Station (ISS) to test propulsion, control, navigation, and self-piloting systems for satellites, using the bowling-ball-shaped Synchronised Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) robots, whose name appears to embarrass no one.

The robots, which can be remotely controlled or fly autonomously, are used as test beds for control of larger robots or satellites and as prototypes to help the ISS crew or other planetary explorers by doing things like inspecting the outer hull or other objects in orbit, on Mars, or in other environments unfriendly enough to make the jobs more appropriate for space bowling balls than for humans.

NASA's website offers a timeline of experiments and results, along with the SPHERES origin story. The gist is that David W. Miller, an aeronautical engineering professor at MIT, is to blame. In a 1999 lecture, he showed students the scene in Star Wars in which a blast-helmeted Luke Skywalker is embarrassed by a floating, spherical, ray-gun-armed droid that has no trouble avoiding his light saber. "I want you to build me some of those," he said, so they did, according to NASA.

The SPHERES robots used mostly custom-designed circuits until 2011, when an Android-based Samsung Nexus S was strapped to the outside of a SPHERE and connected using an expansion port. The phone became the brains for almost everything except the robot's internal operation.


NASA's satellite tech-testing SPHERES robots jet themselves around the ISS using CO2 canisters, the brains of a Samsung Nexus smartphone, and, soon, Google's 3D-visual powerhouse Project Tango. (Source: NASA)

"With the smartphone, the SPHERES will have a built-in camera to take pictures and video, sensors to help conduct inspections, a powerful computing unit to make calculations, and a Wi-Fi connection that we will use to transfer data in real-time to the space station and mission control," David Miller, an MIT professor and lead engineer of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA's Ames Research Center, said in a 2011 press release.

On Feb. 20, NASA announced that SPHERES would get another upgrade. The Nexus S is being replaced with the souped-up Project Ara phone Google calls Project Tango and describes as "an attempt to create... a mobile device that shares our sense of space and movement, that understands and perceives the world the same way we do."

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