NASA's cute space robots just hit another milestone

NASA's cube-shaped Astrobee robots can now work independently alongside astronauts, paving the way for autonomous robotic maintenance crews.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer
Image: NASA

NASA's trio of robots known as Astrobee have completed the first phase of a project to test whether an autonomous system can provide spacecraft monitoring, maintenance and incident response.    

NASA's 12-inch wide cube-shaped robots are more like a flying Roomba than a Boston Dynamics dog or humanoid; more like Weebo, the flying assistant in the 90s' Robin Williams sci-fi/comedy Flubber, than Terminator.    

NASA has sent up three Astrobee "free flying" robots to the ISS since work started in 2018. Bumble and Honey were launched to the International Space Station (ISS) in April 2019 and Queen left for the ISS in July 2019. They're being used to test autonomous maintenance crews as NASA gears for the Artemis human lunar missions and future missions to Mars.

SEE: NASA delays Viper robot's water-hunting mission on the Moon

The latest milestone the project achieved was having two Astrobees — Queen (foreground) and Bumble (background), see below — work independently, alongside astronauts, in separate areas of ISS. (Astronaut Raja Chari is closest to camera and Matthias Maurer is in the background).

Image: NASA

According to NASA, Bumble's navigation skills were put to the test in ISS's Harmony module where it gathered new station mapping data, while Queen captured its first 360-degree panoramic image of the interior of the orbital laboratory.  

Each robot is propelled by electric fans and has a docking station that they can independently return to for a recharge. They also feature a perching arm that can grasp handrails or assist astronauts. And they've given NASA's media team reason to make lots of bee and honey puns. 

The Astrobee was designed to work alongside astronauts, but NASA is also exploring their potential for Artemis on Gateway, a spacecraft that will orbit the Moon and provide an outpost for human lunar missions. Gateway could only be manned for six weeks of a year, leaving extended periods where autonomous maintenance systems could step in. 

NASA's ISAAC or the Integrated System for Autonomous and Adaptive Caretaking project last year put Bumble to the test in a simulated emergency involving high concentrations of carbon dioxide on the ISS. 

The challenge involved using the robot's computer vision AI to detect and find the cause of the ventilation blockage — an astronaut's sock. It found the sock and completed the mission with some help from human operators. 

The other robot ISAAC is testing Robonaut, NASA's "dexterous humanoid robot".

The Astrobees were developed at NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, while Robonaut was designed at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston and built with General Motors.  

ISAAC technology will be applied to Gateway and future exploration missions to Mars and beyond, according to NASA. 

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