NASA and Google are working together to send new 3D technology aloft to map the International Space Station.
Google said Thursday that its Project Tango team is collaborating with scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center to integrate the company's new 3D technology into a robotic platform that will work inside the space station. The integrated technology has been dubbed SPHERES, which stands for Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites.
NASA astronaut Mike Fossum works with one of the smart Spheres aboard the International Space Station. The robotic orbs will get some 3D-sensing smarts from Google this summer. (Photo: NASA)
The technology is scheduled to launch to the orbiting station this summer, although Google a specific date hasn't been set.
"The Spheres program aims to develop zero-gravity autonomous platforms that could act as robotic assistants for astronauts or perform maintenance activities independently on station," according to a Google+ post from the company's ATAP ( Advanced Technology and Projects) group. "The 3D-tracking and mapping capabilities of Project Tango would allow Spheres to reconstruct a 3D-map of the space station and, for the first time in history, enable autonomous navigation of a floating robotic platform 230 miles above the surface of the earth."
The project, which includes scientists from universities, research labs and commercial partners, is led by Google's ATAP group.
"Mobile devices today assume the physical world ends at the boundaries of the screen," said Johnny Lee, the Project Tango leader, in a YouTube video. "Our goal is to give mobile devices a human scale understanding of space and motion."
Google's 3D sensing smartphone, which is still in the prototype phase, has customized hardware and software, including a 4-megapixel camera, motion tracking sensors, computer vision processors and integrated depth sensing.
The sensors make more than a quarter of a million 3D measurements every second, fusing the information into a 3D map of the environment.
NASA began working with Google last summer to get Project Tango working on the space station.
The Intelligent Robotics Group at the Ames Research Center is looking to upgrade the smartphones used to power the three volleyball-sized, free-flying robots on the space station. Astronauts will exchange the current smartphones used in the Spheres with the Google prototypes.
Each robotic orb is self-contained, with power, propulsion, computing and navigation equipment, along with expansion ports for additional sensors and appendages, such as cameras and wireless power transfer systems, according to NASA.
"The Project Tango prototype incorporates a particularly important feature for the smart Spheres — a 3D sensor," said Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group, in a statement. "This allows the satellites to do a better job of flying around on the space station and understanding where exactly they are."
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