NASA’s free-flying robotic assistants inspired by Star Wars droids pass first tests in space ahead of housekeeping mission on the ISS

  • NASA’s ‘Astrobees’ got their first hardware test aboard the ISS this month
  • The bots will help astronauts monitor equipment and keep inventory in space 
  • NASA says they will help astronauts on missions to the moon and deep space 
  • Astrobees compliment a growing number of robotic applications in space 

A recent hardware test of NASA‘s robotic assistant, ‘Astrobees,’ takes a new wave of space-bound autonomous helpers one step closer to reality. 

According to NASA, this month astronaut Anne McClain ran a hardware test of the robot, named ‘Bumble,’ one of three robotic assistants launched to the International Space Station (ISS) on April 15.

Scientists hope Bumble will carry out an array of housekeeping tasks like monitoring equipment and keeping inventory of supplies that NASA hopes will free up its astronauts to perform other more critical tasks relating to with their missions and experiments. 

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Astrobees are just one of many robotic applications from NASA who is also studying the use of 'soft' robotics that replace traditional hardware with malleable plastics

Astrobees are just one of many robotic applications from NASA who is also studying the use of ‘soft’ robotics that replace traditional hardware with malleable plastics

‘Astrobee will prove out robotic capabilities that will enable and enhance human exploration,’ said Maria Bualat, Astrobee project manager at NASA’s Ames Research Center in a statement.

‘Performing such experiments in zero gravity will ultimately help develop new hardware and software for future space missions.’ 

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The bots, based on tiny robots that appear in ‘Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith’ are able to navigate their environment using a mixture of electric fans that provide their propulsion and cameras combined with on-board software that help it avoid obstacles. 

Using a small robotic arm, the cubes can even assist in handling cargo or helping out with experiments. 

Anne McClain performed the first hardware test of 'Bumble,' part of a trio of robots aboard the ISS that can assist astronauts in a number of tasks

Anne McClain performed the first hardware test of ‘Bumble,’ part of a trio of robots aboard the ISS that can assist astronauts in a number of tasks

When they’re low on battery, the bots — not unlike the Earth-based janitorial assistant, Roomba — can see their way back to their charging station.

The Astrobees build on a previous iteration of robotic helps called SPHERES — three first-generation free-flying robot assistants deployed to the ISS  in 2006 to take part in various hardware and software experiments

In the future, NASA hopes robots like the Atrobees could help assist in planned missions to the moon as well as trips to deep space.    

As the agency makes strides on more traditional looking bots like the Astrobee, it also taking a ‘softer’ approach by developing robots made from malleable plastics that do away with rigid hardware. 

According to NASA, the robots, made by using a mould filled with liquid silicon, could theoretically explore other planets by inflating and deflating their plastic chambers causing them to inch along planet surfaces like a starfish. 

WHAT IS THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION?

The International Space Station (ISS) is a $100 billion (£80 billion) science and engineering laboratory that orbits 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

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It has been permanently staffed by rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts since November 2000. 

Research conducted aboard the ISS often requires one or more of the unusual conditions present in low Earth orbit, such as low-gravity or oxygen.

ISS studies have investigated human research, space medicine, life sciences, physical sciences, astronomy and meteorology.

The US space agency, Nasa, spends about $3 billion (£2.4 billion) a year on the space station program, a level of funding that is endorsed by the Trump administration and Congress.

A U.S. House of Representatives committee that oversees Nasa has begun looking at whether to extend the program beyond 2024.

Alternatively the money could be used to speed up planned human space initiatives to the moon and Mars.

To increase their capabilities, the agency is also exploring how soft robots might be able to join together and work cooperatively. 

After a call from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a similar robot to NASA’s Astrobees may also help future missions to repair and monitor satellites. 

DARPA said it wants to engineers to help it develop robotic repairmen capable of fixing the United States’ more than 400 satellites, some of which are located some more than 20,000 miles away, making service and maintenance all but impossible. 

The agency hopes to have those bots developed within the next five years. 



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