Google and NASA announced last spring that Project Tango would be integrated into volleyball-sized robots called SPHERES. These robots are designed to hover around the International Space Station and assist astronauts, and starting next week, they'll finally launch into space.
According to Reuters, Google's smartphone prototypes now act as the "brains and eyes" of SPHERES. Also called Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites, SPHERES were first created by NASA and sent to the space station in 2006. The current goal is to have Project Tango-based SPHERES in space, and they'll eventually handle daily chores and risky duties for astronauts.
Chris Provencher, project manager at Smart SPHERES, told Reuters that NASA partnered with Google because it wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers, and other sensors to the original SPHERES: "As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realized the answer was in our hands," he said. "Let's just use smartphones."
The smarter SPHERES are scheduled to board a cargo spacecraft and officially launch on 11 July. Google and NASA have already conducted tests to study how Project Tango will react in a zero-gravity environment. Research technically kicked off last summer, even though Project Tango didn't debut until earlier this year. Google's Project Tango is an Android-based smartphone prototype and developer kit. LG is expected to ship the first consumer version next year.
Google has described its existing Project Tango prototype as a 5-inch smartphone equipped with hardware and software designed to "track the full 3D motion of the device, while simultaneously creating a map of the environment". NASA embraced these experimental smartphones because they could correctly make sense of space using fancy hardware like a motion-tracking camera and infrared depth sensor.
Project Tango should be able to visualise angles inside the space station and construct a 3D map that lets the SPHERES navigate. Provencher described the navigation system as "robust" and said it is exactly what NASA needed for robots inside of the space station.
In fact, the Project Tango smartphones that will be used by SPHERES are "split open" (as seen above). More specifically, when mounted onto the robots, the phones' touchscreen and sensors will face outward. The smartphones also include space-tested batteries and plastic connectors.