Robotic ‘Bees’ join astronauts in space

While robotics in space is nothing new, NASA’s latest robot companions, Honey and Bumble, have already caused quite a buzz since arriving at the the International Space Station (ISS) last month.

The robots, dubbed ‘Astrobees’, took several years to build and develop at NASA's Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and build on the success of SPHERES - NASA’s first-generation robotic assistant that arrived at the ISS in 2006.

The robots have been primarily deployed to free up valuable time for astronauts living and working aboard the International Space Station. As well as assisting crew with routine maintenance, the robot will play a large role in helping to carry out research, test new technologies and study human-robot interaction in space.

In this month’s blog, SinoScan take a look at the technology and its possible applications:

How the technology works

The Astrobee robots were tested inside a special lab at NASA’s Ames Research Centre where researchers created a mock-up of the space station’s interior, before two out of three were officially deployed on April 19th 2019.

The 1-square-foot robots are almost entirely autonomous thanks to their fan-based propulsion system, which is based around a pair of impellers that pressurise air inside of the robot. Air is vented through a series of 12 different nozzles and when used in different combinations, the robot can move freely in any direction by itself.

What’s more, the Astrobees are fully equipped with several cameras and sensors, allowing for easy self-navigation. This is particularly handy when the robots need to navigate themselves to the docking stations to recharge.

As well as this, the robots can carry out a variety of modular payloads and NASA also planning to attach robotic arms to the Astrobees in the next couple of months; which will allow the robots to complete more complex tasks and allow guest scientists to begin experiments on board the space station.

First mission

One of the first tasks Astrobees will be assigned is to take track of the ISS’s huge inventory, which will help free up a lot of time for astronauts. To do so, the robots will use RFID scanner technology – which isn’t that dissimilar to something you’d find on a supermarket checkout.

While freeing up astronauts’ time is a large reason for the deployment of the Astrobees, the robots will also play a large part in research going on at the ISS – acting as an ‘in-space, zero-g robotics research lab’. NASA has already signed up a host of guest scientists, who will be able to use the robots to conduct their research in space.

One of the first projects lined up is called Sounsee - built by Bosch and Astrobotic Technology Inc - which will use microphones and machine learning to listen to machinery on-board the ISS to detect mechanical issues.

Other researchers hoping to carry out research on-board the ISS include a research group from Stanford University, who’re hoping to attach their gecko-inspired grip to the Astrobee, in the hope of developing a universal robot hand.

As well as this, NASA will be conducting some research of its own to see how well humans and robots can interact for longer periods of time, to see how this will impact future research into exploring the Moon and other destinations.

Further afield

If all goes well, this could just be the start for Astrobees in space. For example, the Lunar Gateway – a lunar-orbit space station – is expected to have very little human interaction compared to the ISS; making robotics a very viable option. The third Astrobee, Queen, is set to fly to the station later this year and as NASA moves forward with their plans for exploring the moon and Mars, uses for robotic crewmembers will only grow.

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