Astronauts in the International Space Station have a flying robot company flying the first of three Astrobee bots. At the beginning of the year, NASA sent two of the cuboid trios to the ISS, where the robots finally help with household chores, participate in scientific experiments and make the entire site look more futuristic.
First, Bumble flies – Honey and Queen follow – though the Astrobee can not just fly out of the spaceship and circle the ISS. Instead, astronauts had to test the robot's navigation system to autonomously move through the facility.
Since GPS is not much use in space, the Astrobees rely on a camera-based location system. This looks at the environment and compares this to a visual map of the interior of the ISS. Because there is no gravity on the space station, Bumble can move in any direction and rotate in place, using fans to maneuver.
The first tests were to make sure the camera navigation system was working properly. The astronaut of the Canadian space agency David Saint-Jacques physically moved the robot around the space station. Further testing looked at how well it can respond to commands such as "11.8 inches forward" and "45 degrees right", NASA said. More complex movements and commands will follow.
The ultimate goal, however, is at least temporarily a degree of autonomy. The robots will be able to fly on their own, check their equipment and take stock. These tasks are currently performed by a human astronaut. At other times, controllers on Earth can remotely control the astrobes, perform experiments, and check ISS systems.
Flexibility was considered in the design of the three robots. The housing contains three payload slots, into which different tools or other devices can be inserted. For example, a robotic arm can be attached, with which the astrobes can manipulate or fix objects on rails of the ISS. This could help them to save energy when no movement is needed, but they must stay in place.
Also this software is modular and adaptable. NASA has actually made it open source in the hope that robotics experts would join in and add new features. The tests are expected to begin in 2020.
Later, the results of the three astrobes on the ISS could determine which robots would help the astronauts on the Moon and Mars. NASA intends to use robots there for maintenance and other tasks to help a relatively small crew of people make maximum use of their time off-planet.