Meet Astrobee, a flying robot that will be put into service on the International Space Station in 2019.
The one-foot-wide cube is designed to help astronauts with various chores from monitoring equipment to housekeeping.
Remember that scene in Star Wars: A New Hope where Obi-Wan is training Luke with a flying droid? Well, that’s basically what Astrobee is, minus the lightsaber of course.
SPHERES, which stands for “Synchronised Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites,” is a NASA program devoted to engineering flying machines to operate on the ISS.
So far, the initiative has developed three free-flying units about the size and mass of a bowling ball.
Building on the success of the SPHERES program, Astrobee is being engineered to take on research and housekeeping activities without supervision. The little robot can be remotely controlled, but it is also capable of operating autonomously.
The cubic droid is equipped with a touchscreen, a set of cameras and sensors and an arm – à la BB8 from Star Wars: The Last Jedi – which can perch in place on the ship as needed. Fans and lasers on the robot help it maneuver around when it is floating in zero gravity.
For astronauts, the little fellow will help them free up some valuable time for research. Astrobee can cruise around the ISS by using its scanners to keep track of the tens of thousands of tools and parts astronauts use daily. These scanners pinpoint each object’s location quicker and more accurately than what any human is capable of.
Astrobee can also monitor environmental conditions and keep the astronauts informed of the air quality and sound levels, both of which are crucial for the safety of the crew.
The robot also gives flight controllers back on Earth an omnipresent eye in space. Thanks to this incredibly mobile set of sensors, eyes and ears, scientists, engineers and controllers can oversee routine chores remotely, assess situations and give feedback in real time.
Astrobee is currently being developed by the NASA Game Changing Development Program.
Program manager Jose Benavides told CNBC, “A crew can’t be depended on to do everything necessary to maintain a spacecraft. Astrobee is a step in advancing that type of technology.”