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Space station's flying droids embrace Google smartphone tech

The free-flying Spheres, inspired by "Star Wars" and now aided by Google's Project Tango, will handle more of the mundane tasks for astronauts.

A NASA Spheres free-flying robot, seen in the Intelligent Robotics Group Lab at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. James Martin/CNET

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Imagine you're an astronaut who has just arrived at the International Space Station. You need to assess the supplies on hand, but counting everything demands so much of your limited time.

That's exactly why NASA originally turned to Spheres, autonomous, free-flying robots that take care of mundane tasks and are based on the flying droid that helped teach Luke Skywalker how to fight with a light saber in the original "Star Wars."

Now, Spheres are incorporating Google's Project Tango, cutting-edge tech that is expected to help the space agency increase efficiency.

For some time -- since 2003, to be exact -- space station crews have had access to free-flying robots known as Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites. That ungainly title is best abbreviated to a more palatable acronym: Spheres. Originally designed by aero/astroengineers at MIT, Spheres were meant as a flying test bed for examining the mechanical properties of materials in microgravity. The inspiration for the project, said Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA, "comes from 'Star Wars,' as all good things do."

Now, NASA is bringing an especially innovative commercial tool into the mix. Starting this October, Spheres will incorporate Project Tango -- a smartphone platform built for 3D mapping that also happens to be packed with just the series of sensors and cameras that NASA needs to handle many of the mundane tasks aboard the ISS.

In 2003, Spheres were fairly rudimentary -- at least for flying autonomous robots. They relied on liquid carbon dioxide for propulsion and on an ancient Texas Instruments digital signal processor.

About four years ago, Fong's Intelligent Robotics Group took over the project. Since then, it has been slowly improving Spheres robots by using the small computers better known as smartphones. At first, NASA worked with Nexus S smartphones, which are jammed with cameras, gyroscopes, accelerometers, and modern processors.

In his lab at NASA's Ames Research Center here on Monday, Fong explained that his team has now graduated to incorporating Project Tango into the Spheres project. That's a step forward, he said, and should allow far more control over the flying robots and more accurate and trackable flying.

That's important, as space station crews have a lot to keep track of while on board. For example, Fong said, they must test air quality, as well as measure items like sound, light, radiation levels. In addition, there are more than 20,000 items aboard the space station that must be inventoried, such as food, toolkits, and instruments. At the same time, NASA has a need for cameras on the ISS, but who wants to ask an astronaut to stop what she's working on and take pictures?

With Project Tango, Fong said, the Spheres can be smarter than ever and help NASA take more of the day-to-day tasks out of the crew members' hands.

Thanks to the device's multiple onboard cameras and ability to "see" with stereo vision, as well as built-in PrimeSense technology -- which powers the Kinect, Microsoft's hands-free motion-capture system -- NASA now has a tool for auto-generating 3D maps of the space station without requiring the physical beacons that earlier Spheres relied on to know where they were.

Project Tango provides an inexpensive, open-source 3D mapping system for the Spheres. James Martin/CNET

With Tango, Fong explained, Spheres will be able to automatically calculate their distance from anything on the ISS. That should make it much easier for a droid to navigate the space station while managing its tasks.

Of course, Fong's team has taken a few liberties with the Project Tango devices it has been marrying with Spheres. For one thing, he said, they've taken the back side of the phone and "butterflied it out," meaning that all of its cameras are now facing forward. They've also covered the screen with protective material and pulled out the components that allow phone calls on Earth -- both safety steps mandated for working on the ISS. And instead of the built-in battery, it is powered by a special lithium-ion battery pack certified for use on the space station.

This June, the new Spheres, along with their Tango mounts, are scheduled to be sent up to the ISS aboard a commercial resupply mission. At first, they will only be used in small test areas. Crews will send the flying droids out to work on stereo and 3D sensing, and 3D navigation. But, Fong said, all of the data gathered will be used to feed into the next full generation of Spheres, which will have Tango technology built in, rather than mounted on the side.

For now, this is work being done in labs well behind security at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View. But on Wednesday and Thursday, the public will have a chance to see the Tango-powered Spheres up close and personal at the Solid conference in San Francisco.