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."
In February, Google and NASA scientists took the smartphone prototypes on a zero-gravity test flight. The engineers used the flight to calibrate the device's motion-tracking and positioning code to function properly in space.
NASA scientists say they envision 3D-enabled Spheres could be used to inspect the outside of the space station or the exterior of deep space vehicles.
While Google's 3D technology is set to go to the space station this summer, a SpaceX resupply mission, which will carry legs for the humanoid robot working on the orbiter, is slated to launch this afternoon.
SpaceX was set to launch its third resupply mission on Monday but the liftoff was postponed due to a leak in the Falcon 9 rocket that will carry the Dragon cargo spacecraft aloft.
Since the summer of 2013, Google and NASA have been working together to bring 3D mapping technology to the International Space Station. (Video: Google)
This article, Google tech to bring 3D mapping smarts to NASA's space station robot, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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