I have been living under a rock. Somehow I missed the launch of what could be the closest thing to a long-standing image of what robotics should look like from my childhood.
At some point in my childhood, I sat down with my dad to watch the 1979 classic The Black Hole. Truthfully, most of the film is lost to time in my mind (meaning I really should sit down and re-watch it) but two floating robots forever caught my imagination: V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B.
They were what all space robots should look like. Small, compact, cute and most importantly they float. Turns out not only does NASA have floating robots on the International Space Station (ISS) called SPHERES that have been on the station since 2006, but NASA has just recently sent up the second generation of these robots named Astrobee. These second-generation bots will conduct research, be an extra set of eyes for ground control and assist with certain tasks.
SPHERES got their start thanks to professor David W. Miller of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Space Systems Laboratory gave his students a challenge. He wanted them to build a space robot that was like the lightsaber training droid in Star Wars: A New Hope. The result was three satellites that tested formation flight and docking control algorithms. SPHERES also started the Zero Robotics competition that allowed students to have their code tested in space!
The Astrobees will continue this tradition alongside assisting with tasking on the ISS, testing robotic components, trying out navigation algorithms, and just being plain awesome if you ask me. The three Astrobees (Honey, Bumble and Queen) all use fans to move them through zero gravity. With little to no weight restrictions on their lifting capabilities, because they don’t have to overcome the effects of gravity, these little robots pack quite the punch. I am very excited to see how they will change life on the ISS and am now thinking I need to get into robotics so I can maybe get my code tested on these inspiring robots.
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