Sat, Jun 30, 2018 - Page 7 News List

‘Flying brain’ designed to follow astronaut takes off

AFP, TAMPA, Florida

The Crew Interactive MObile companioN (CIMON) robot is put through its paces during a communications test at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne-Porz, Germany, on Jan. 30. In the background from left are project leaders Christian Karrasch, Till Eisenberg and Christoph Kossl.

Photo: AP/the German Aerospace Center

A floating, ball-shaped robot, specially trained to follow a German astronaut around the International Space Station, blasted off yesterday on its ground-breaking mission.

The basketball-sized device called CIMON — shortened from “Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN” — was described as a “flying brain” by Manfred Jaumann, head of microgravity payloads at Airbus.

It launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, yesterday at 5:42am, along with about 2,700kg of gear packed aboard SpaceX’s uncrewed Dragon cargo capsule.

CIMON’s activation marks “a historical moment,” becoming the first robot of its kind to interact with people in space, said Christian Karrasch, CIMON project manager at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), during a NASA news briefing on Thursday.

A project in the works for the past two years, CIMON has been trained to recognize the voice and face of Alexander Gerst, 42, a geophysicist with the European Space Agency.

When Gerst calls CIMON, the floating robot acoustically senses where Gerst is calling from, orients itself and zooms over.

Hovering at the astronauts’ eye level, its front camera can detect if the person in front of it is indeed Gerst, or someone else.

CIMON is powered by more than a dozen propellers to help it jet around and avoid bumping into things inside the Columbus module of the space lab.

“This is designed to work in English. It understands Alexander,” said Bret Greenstein, global vice president of Watson Internet of Things Offerings at IBM. “It was helpful to train it to recognize him so that it will come to him when he speaks.”

All six crew members at the orbiting outpost can speak to CIMON, although it has been taught to work best with Gerst.

Experts say the experiment is more than just a smartphone-type device that follows astronauts around.

The metal and plastic intelligent robot, built using 3D printing, works together with people as a team, and allows astronauts to communicate hands-free via voice commands.

CIMON is to work with the space station’s Watson AI — IBM’s artificial intelligence technology — designed to support space flight crews.

Partners in the project include Airbus, DLR, IBM and the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich.

The goal for this flight is mainly to demonstrate that the technology works.

Three experiments are planned: one using crystals, one with a Rubik’s cube and, finally, a medical experiment in which CIMON is to be employed as a flying camera, DLR said.

The robot is designed to guide Gerst through various science procedures and show videos or pictures as needed.

Gerst can also ask the robot questions beyond the simple procedure at hand.

CIMON is equipped with a microphone on the back, an infrared camera on the front, two batteries, and, perhaps most importantly, an offline button.

Once toggled to offline, Gerst can be sure nothing he is saying is streamed down to the IBM server on Earth.

Once back on, voice recordings are activated again.

CIMON is not yet trained to respond to all possible emergencies and protocols on the space station, researchers said, adding that the AI robot is programmed to learn, and they hope to further hone its capabilities in the years to come.

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