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Meet the New Flying Robots That NASA Is Sending Into Space

The Astrobees are here to help.

© NASA's Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart The Astrobees are here to help.

By David Grossman, Popular Mechanics

The International Space Station (ISS) has three new flying robots, collectively known as the Astrobees. Built by NASA, these three bots-named Honey, Queen, and Bumble-will work alongside astronauts on future missions.

“The main purpose of the Astrobee platform is to provide a zero-gravity testbed for guest scientists to try out new robotic technologies in space,” says Maria Bualat, Astrobee project manager at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, in a press statement. “Astrobee will prove out robotic capabilities that will enable and enhance human exploration. Performing such experiments in zero gravity will ultimately help develop new hardware and software for future space missions.”

© Robert Markowitz / NASA - Johnson Space Center Testing an Astrobee’s noise levels at an acoustics testing in an anechoic chamber at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston.

Honey, Queen, and Bumble don't operate independently. They're part of a free-flying robot system, each of them propelled by electric fans. They have a modular hardware and software design, making them flexible and versatile in what they can do around the ISS. They've got three payload bays each, leaving nine ports for astronauts to install new hardware in the future.

In the spirit of discovery, NASA has released the Astrobee software as open source, which can be found on GitHub. There, NASA says that the "Astrobee Robot Software performs vision-based localization, provides autonomous navigation, docking and perching, manages various sensors and actuators, and supports user interaction via screen-based displays, light signaling, and sound."

As things stand, Astrobees each have built-in software and six cameras. Right now they're doing maintenance work like monitoring equipment and performing inventory, which allows scientists more time to focus on meaningful tasks. The bots can perform these tasks solo, fly around the station independently, or be guided by astronauts. Cameras and microphones will allow them to be remotely monitored back on Earth.

The first hardware checks have already been completed. Around six weeks after the Astrobees arrive, astronauts will make their first attempt at flying the bots. NASA will conduct a series of basic tests to see if the Astrobees can perform autonomous docking and undocking for charging. If and when those tests succeed, NASA will move on to more complex tests. The entire system is expected to be online in fall 2019.

Robots like the Astrobees could play an increasingly prominent role in space upkeep as NASA turns toward returning humans to the moon and visiting Mars for the first time. While astronauts are on the surface, the theory goes, the Astrobees could act as caretakers in orbit.

Floating robots are no strangers to the ISS. Last year, the European Space Agency sent a robot named CIMON to the station. CIMON was an interactive assistant with a personality that was designed to answer questions and help crew members with various tasks. Not everything went according to plan, however, as CIMON had a bit of an emotional breakdown when it was asked to stop playing the German electronic band Kraftwerk.




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Kids Magazine: Meet the New Flying Robots That NASA Is Sending Into Space
Meet the New Flying Robots That NASA Is Sending Into Space
The Astrobees are here to help.
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