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In almost all science fiction stories, there are little autonomous spheres that go around and do things for people. It’s just how the genre works. NASA’s project SPHERES (Synchronized, Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) seems to have made that a reality.

SPHERES is a project that’s been in the works for seven years, the goal of which is to make a robot that would be able to assist astronauts on the ISS (International Space Station). For a while, all the SPHERES robots could do was fly around, they didn’t have a complex enough brain to be actually useful to the astronauts. But the team is planning on changing that––by utilizing Google’s Project Tango.

We’ve talked about Project Tango before, but to recap: Project Tango is Google’s endeavor to create a compact, mobile, depth-perceiving 3D mapping technology. The application uses a Samsung Galaxy S4 to run, with a few modifications (including a second camera).

sphere
Isn’t it cute?

Project Tango’s ability to interact with the physical world as well as its small size makes it a perfect fit for the SPHERES’ team. Astronauts will be able to interface easily with the robot using the touchscreen, the phone itself doesn’t weight much (important for spaceflight, where every pound costs money), and it has the ability to perceive it’s surroundings in three dimensions––very important for effective, intelligent navigation.

So, on July 11th three SPHERES with Project Tango are being shipped up to the ISS. This isn’t SPHERES first rodeo in space, but they’ve never been up there with the Tango modifications. This trip is intended as a test-run for the new software, so no lightsaber practice yet––but the future of Project Tango and SPHERES is bright.

Once tests have been run and further modifications made, the hope is that SPHERES will be able to perform chores (gotta keep the ISS tidy), and maybe even the adrenaline infused, potentially dangerous space walks. The added “hands” would free up the astronaut’s time and could potentially reduce the risks involved. It’s exciting to think about a future with droves of compact spheres flying around in space assisting astronauts––hell, the future is just plain exciting.

But the applications extend beyond routine tasks aboard the ISS. If SPHERES can help astronauts, how much would it take to adapt them for us here on Earth? Might it also be useful for the future of space tourism to have robots that knows how to fix problems? The technology still has a little ways to go, but the July 11th launch is a big first step. The applicability of an intelligent, spatially aware, and compact robot is wide, much like the frontier that it is bound for.


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