“Astrobee” Robots Will Help Astronauts on the ISS

Cube-shaped floating robots will perform routine tasks and assist with experiments.

The International Space Station (ISS) will soon welcome new crew members: a trio of cube-shaped floating robots called Astrobees.

Reminiscent of the robots from the sci-fi classic Silent Running, the Astrobee is about a cubic foot in size and comes equipped with several sensors and cameras. The robot, which will use fans and its vision-based navigation to get around in the zero-gravity environment of the ISS, can move in any direction and turn on any axis. The Astrobee also includes a touchscreen, a speaker and a microphone. The robot is battery powered, and recharging occurs automatically: when its battery runs low, the Astrobee will maneuver by itself to its docking station to recharge.

The robot can operate fully autonomously or can be remote controlled by astronauts on board the ISS or by mission control staff on the ground. It features a removable robotic arm for handling cargo and helping out with experiments. The Astrobee is being developed at NASA’s Ames Research Center, where it was tested inside a special mock-up of the ISS’s interior.

The Astrobees will be busy on board the ISS.

The robots will serve as assistants to the astronauts, taking on routine and simple tasks to free up the astronauts’ attention and workload so they can focus on the tasks that only humans can perform.

“For example, with tens of thousands of tools and parts to keep track of, Astrobee can cruise the ISS to continually verify the location of items with its RFID scanner, instead of requiring astronauts to spend their time doing this by hand,” said NASA. “Astrobee can also monitor environmental conditions such as air quality or sound levels, which can get very loud on the ISS, again freeing up the astronauts’ time while keeping them healthy.”

The robots will also be useful assistants in conducting experiments and testing new technologies. And, in fact, they will be their own experiment—providing valuable data about the interactions between humans and robots in space. “Learning how robots can best work with humans in close proximity will be key for exploring the Moon and other destinations,” said NASA.

The Astrobees won’t be the first robots on the ISS. They’ll be joining SPHERES, NASA’s first-generation robotic assistants, and CIMON, a robot developed by Airbus and Germany’s state space agency that features an AI powered by IBM’s Watson supercomputer.

Two Astrobees are scheduled to be launched shortly, with the third joining them at a later date. NASA anticipates that the robots will be invaluable assistants to the ISS crew—and possibly on future trips farther into space.

Read more about robotics in space at DARPA Wants To Re-Launch Program To Fix Space “Junk”.