On 11 July Nasa will launch a spacecraft bound for the
International Space Station (ISS) with a very important package on
board. Inside will be Google smartphones running next-generation
3D-sensing tech, which are intended to work as the brains and eyes
of hovering robots known as Spheres.
Spheres stands for Synchronised Position Hold, Engage, Reorient,
Experimental Satellites and the fact that they exist at all is a
case of life imitating art. The Spheres were inspired by the round
floating robots that can be seen fighting Luke Skywalker in a scene
in Star Wars. They were first sent to the ISS in 2006 and
at the time weren’t capable of doing much more that precise
hovering movements. It is hoped that eventually they may be able to
take over daily chores on behalf of astronauts, including dangerous
tasks on the exterior of the ISS.
Before the Spheres can be of this level of use, they will have
to be significantly improved, and researchers from Nasa’s Ames
Research Center in Mountain View, California have been trying to
decide how best to adapt them since 2010.
“We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the
processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors. As we were
scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realised the
answer was in our hands,” Smart Spheres project manager Chris
Provencher told Reuters. “Let’s just use smartphones.”
The phones from Google’s Project Tango have a bunch of exciting
tech on board, including an infrared depth sensor, which can be
used to create 3D maps for the Spheres to utilise. The devices had
to be adapted before they could be sent into space of course, and
have been given loads of batteries.