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Meet NASA's Smartphone-Driven Robots

Small satellites powered by modified Android-based Samsung Nexus S handsets act as astronaut assistants on the International Space Station.

NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space
NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space
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NASA has successfully tested smartphone-powered satellites to help astronauts with their tasks aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Through its Human Exploration Telerobotics project, the space agency outfitted free-flying satellites--called Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES)--with modified Android-based Nexus S headsets from Samsung and successfully flew the first of the robots last month on the ISS. NASA has posted a video of the test flight on its website.

The handsets provide onboard power, propulsion, computing, and navigational software, as well as built-in cameras and sensors for the SPHERES, according to NASA. Each smartphone is connected to one of the flying robots via a cable, and a Wi-Fi network connection to ISS computers provide a data connection.

[ Smartphones are proving their usefulness across government. See Army Advances Smartphone Strategy. ]

NASA changed the handsets only slightly to make them suitable for the flying robots. It removed the GSM communications chip to avoid interference with electronics aboard the ISS, and replaced the lithium battery with AA alkaline batteries. Other than that, the handsets powering the robots are "identical to the off-the-shelf consumer device," the agency said.

While the Samsung headset is the first one to be approved for the program, NASA said it will use other types of smartphones in the future.

SPHERES are meant to serve as remote-controlled astronaut assistants, performing tasks such as surveys and inspections of the interior of the ISS by capturing mobile camera images and video.

NASA also has bigger plans for the flying robots, aiming to simulate external free-flight excursions and test other more-challenging tasks to see what they can handle, the space agency said.

Using smartphones or their software as flight controllers is an option the federal government increasingly is exploring.

Researchers from Boeing and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently tested controlling a mini unmanned aerial device using an iPhone in a remote location. The U.S. military widely uses UAVs--also known as drones--in combat, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.

The Department of Defense's technology research arm, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), also is eyeing the use of mobile applications to control and provide other sensors for UAVs and other military vehicles.

DARPA is seeking smartphone app developers for its Adaptable Sensor System (ADAPT) program, which uses a commercial development model to facilitate rapid delivery and configuration of sensor systems for myriad military vehicles.

How 10 federal agencies are tapping the power of cloud computing--without compromising security. Also in the new, all-digital InformationWeek Government supplement: To judge the success of the OMB's IT reform efforts, we need concrete numbers on cost savings and returns. Download our Cloud In Action issue of InformationWeek Government now. (Free registration required.)

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