NASA's flying Spheres

NASA's Spheres are free-flying robots designed to help the crew of the International Space Station handle every-day tasks like counting supplies and testing air quality. Now, to help the droids fly more accurately, NASA is incorporating devices using Google's experimental smartphone technology, Project Tango.

Here, we see one of the Spheres at the Intelligent Robotics Group Lab where the droids undergo testing at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

The cross-like brackets seen at the center are the ports where hardware is attached. The Spheres were designed with modular ports, which allows NASA to use the many sensors and capabilities of commercial smartphones to constantly upgrade the flying robots.

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Photo by: James Martin/CNET / Caption by:

Google's Project Tango

Google's experimental Project Tango smartphone has a 3D sensor that is able to capture the surrounding environment -- making it a powerful mapping tool. With Project Tango, Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA, says Spheres can be smarter than ever and help take more of the day-to-day tasks out of the ISS crew members' hands.

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Photo by: James Martin/CNET / Caption by:

A 3D mapping system

Project Tango provides an inexpensive, open-source 3D mapping system for the Spheres. The display here is showing the capabilities of the Project Tango's 3D sensor, with the heat-map-like visualization depicting distances (with red closer and blue further).

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Photo by: James Martin/CNET / Caption by:

Sensors and cameras

Fong shows off the sensors and cameras on the back of a Project Tango smartphone.

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Photo by: James Martin/CNET / Caption by:

Modifications for Spheres

Fong and the IRG team modified the Project Tango devices for integration with Spheres, butterflying the back side of the phone out so both the rear, with the sensors, and the front, with the display, are visible.

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Photo by: James Martin/CNET / Caption by:

A powerful package of sensors

Here, Fong demonstrates how the modified Project Tango phones attach to the Spheres to become a powerful package of sensors and processors to the flying robots.

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Photo by: James Martin/CNET / Caption by:

3D mapping for Spheres

With the Tango device powered up, the Sphere now has an easily upgraded array of sensors and processors to act as the brain to the robots, capable of autonomous movement with a better, 3D understanding of their surroundings.

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Photo by: James Martin/CNET / Caption by:
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