NASA is testing something they call SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) on the International Space Station…they are spherical robots that can fly around the station and perform simple tasks. They were inspired by the floating droid remote that Luke trains with in Star Wars. The most recent test was in December.
The Smart SPHERES, located in the Kibo laboratory module, were remotely operated from the International Space Station’s Mission Control Center at Johnson to demonstrate how a free-flying robot can perform surveys for environmental monitoring, inspection and other routine housekeeping tasks.
In the future, small robots could regularly perform routine maintenance tasks allowing astronauts to spend more time working on science experiments. In the long run, free-flying robots like Smart SPHERES also could be used to inspect the exterior of the space station or future deep-space vehicles.
They are outfitting the Smart SPHERES with Android phones for data collection:
Each SPHERE Satellite is self-contained with power, propulsion, computing and navigation equipment. When Miller’s team first designed the SPHERES, all of their potential uses couldn’t be imagined up front. So, the team built an “expansion port” into each satellite where additional sensors and appendages, such as cameras and wireless power transfer systems, could be added. This is how the Nexus S handset — the SPHERES’ first smartphone upgrade — is going to be attached.
“Because the SPHERES were originally designed for a different purpose, they need some upgrades to become remotely operated robots,” said DW Wheeler, lead engineer in the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames. “By connecting a smartphone, we can immediately make SPHERES more intelligent. 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.”
Here’s some video from a past test: