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  sci-tech > space > story pagecorner  

Floating 'droids' to roam space corridors of the future

Prototype of the Personal Satellite Assistant. Click image for technical details.  

In this story:

Robot can video conference, float on its own

Wireless computing worked on shuttle, Mir

PSAs to handle tasks both risky and mundane


January 12, 2000
Web posted at: 9:21 a.m. EST (1421 GMT)

MOFFETT FIELD, California (CNN) -- Astronauts in the near future could have extra eyes, ears and noses, thanks to hovering mini-robots designed to take care of an assortment of routine and dangerous chores.


International Space Station

Scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center are working on a prototype of the Personal Satellite Assistant, a small orb that will monitor laboratories and living quarters in space shuttles and the International Space Station.

Animation: The Personal Satellite Assistant in action

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The PSA, about the size of a softball, will move independently in the weightless confines of orbiting space vehicles, serving as an extra eye, ear and nose for space crews and ground teams.

The PSA will be equipped with a variety of sensors to check environmental conditions in a space vehicle such as the temperature, air pressure and the amount of oxygen, carbon dioxide and bacterial growth.

The robot will be controlled in several ways. "When the crew is interacting with it, they will give it directions or goals, and the PSA will execute those commands," said Yuri Gawdiak, principal researcher for the project at the Ames center in Moffett Field, California.

"It also has a wireless network connection to the spacecraft so it can get commands from scientists on the ground and also from the spacecraft system. So if the spacecraft itself says it has a pressure leak, it can send a PSA out first to validate that that is indeed going on," he said.

Robot can video conference, float on its own

The PSAs would float through the corridors of the International Space Station under their own micro-propulsion  

The robot will have a camera for video conferencing, navigation sensors, wireless network connections, and its own propulsion system for moving around the space station.

"Our research objective is to test intelligent autonomous systems that use advanced sensors and monitoring technologies for supporting current and future spacecraft operations," Gawdiak said.

The PSA is based on commercial off-the-shelf technology. For example, industrial tools already in use to sense atmospheric pressure, gas and temperature are being used to develop the mini-robot.

The robot's compact design will enable it to operate in the cramped confines of space shuttles and the International Space Station. Since it will operate on its own, the astronauts will be free to perform other tasks.

The PSA represents the next generation of advanced Information Technologies that follows a wireless network experiment developed at NASA Ames in 1995 for the International Space Station, according to NASA.

Wireless computing worked on shuttle, Mir

As the astronauts onboard Atlantis discovered during a 1996 mission to Mir, wireless computer networks work well in a space environment. The computers' radio signals did not interfere with other electronic equipment on either the space shuttle or the Russian Mir space station.

Based on the success of that experiment, the crew recommended handheld wireless portable data assistants that could support their mission operations onboard the International Space Station.

The Ames research scientists took their recommendation several steps further by turning the handheld data assistants into autonomous, intelligent robots.

This design approach has several key advantages, according to NASA. Besides data assistant capabilities to the onboard crew, payload scientists and mission controllers on the ground, the PSA would be able to remotely monitor their payloads, especially when onboard crewmembers are not available.

PSAs to handle tasks both risky and mundane

Another benefit of the design would be the ability to have several PSAs conduct collaborative trouble-shooting activities. In order to accomplish a complicated task, such as finding a pressure leak, three or more PSAs could fly in formation to zero in on the location.

The PSA is also being designed to handle more ordinary chores, like environmental sensor checks and inventory monitoring, to allow the crew to focus on research activities.

NASA scientists hope that eventually the PSA can support remote diagnostic operations and substitute, as needed, for nonfunctioning spacecraft sensors.

"We hope to launch a Personal Satellite Assistant in about two years aboard a space shuttle and in about three years aboard the International Space Station," Gawdiak said. "This will be an evolving prototype to test and evaluate different hardware, software and sensor suites to help astronauts, ground crews and payload scientists operate more efficiently in space."

Shuttle may be launched to repair faltering space station
January 5, 2000

Personal Satelite Assistant
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