Star Wars-inspired bots set to act as virtual assistants on the International Space Station


In another example of sci-fi fuelling real scientific innovation, NASA astronauts will share their spacecrafts with Astrobees: robots that were inspired by Star Wars training droids.

Whilst the Star Wars droids helped Luke Skywalker during his lightsaber training, the Astrobees’ duties are much more extensive. They’ll assist in tasks like checking air quality and noise levels, monitoring and conducting experiments, and keeping track of tens of thousands of equipment pieces aboard the spacecraft. In short, these bots will be doing vital housekeeping and monitoring work to support the NASA crew on board.

image courtesy of NASA

image courtesy of NASA

The Astrobees follow the success of NASA’s first generation free-flying bots, known as SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellite), which were first deployed in 2006. The Astrobees mark a notable upgrade; whereas the SPHERES require someone on the ground crew to control them at all times, the Astrobees are capable of carrying out some tasks largely autonomously. “In the end, [the Astrobee] should be able to depart from its dock, do an entire survey of several modules, and then return to its dock at the end of it,” Trey Smith, a research scientist in NASA’s Intelligent Robotics Group, told Fast Company.

Unsurprisingly, developing a robot which could navigate and “fly” around a space station unmanned required some serious ground-breaking technology. The team at NASA’s Game Changing Development Program used navigation algorithms similar to those use by drones and an air propulsion system to get Astrobee literally off the ground. They also deployed image recognition to train Astrobee how to recognise visual landmarks around the spacecraft, and orient accordingly. The Astrobee also comes equipped with sensors, cameras, and scanners which allow them to locate objects quicker than a human ever could. If you’re concerned about the Astrobee malfunctioning and breaking valuable equipment or accidentally shattering a window, NASA have also equipped the Astrobees with perhaps the most sensible innovation of all: soft bumpers on each of its corners.

Such innovations are only the beginning of autonomous bot capabilities, according to NASA–they will be dedicating serious resources to developing the free-flying bots in the coming years.

In many ways, the Astrobees are a compelling argument against the “robots will steal our jobs” rhetoric which is prevalent today. Rather than replacing astronauts, the Astrobees assist in mundane tasks, freeing up valuable time for the astronauts to conduct the kind of research which only humans possess the processing capabilities for. As the 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.” Such innovations provide a promising framework for the future of robotics and AI: one where bots support, rather than replace, the work carried out by humans.

NASA launched the Astrobee program to the space station in 2018, and who knows where the Astrobees will be launched next. Perhaps to a galaxy far, far away?