Topics: International Space Station, NASA, Space Exploration, Spaceflight
In April 2021, Bumble, one of the free-flying Astrobee robots aboard the International Space Station, was put to the test to investigate a simulated anomaly. In the simulation, the station’s life support systems detected a high concentration of carbon dioxide. A similar situation, in reality, could be very dangerous for the seven people who are living and working aboard the microgravity laboratory.
During the test, the small, cube-shaped robot adeptly navigated the station to find the location designated as a “vent” used for cabin air circulation, and used computer vision to automatically detect the foreign object blocking the vent – an “astronaut sock,” represented by a printed image of a sock. Then, Bumble called for help to clear the blockage. For its next test, Bumble completed a survey of Bay 6 of the space station’s Japanese Exploration Module, building a high-resolution multi-sensor 3D map. During this journey, Bumble found itself bumping into and untangling itself from stray cables, and coping with simulated space-to-ground communication interruptions. It ultimately persevered and completed its mission objectives, with a little timely help from ground operators.
This simulated fault scenario marked the end of the first phase of testing for software designed to enable autonomous operations of a spacecraft’s operating and robotic systems. The software’s name is ISAAC – the Integrated System for Autonomous and Adaptive Caretaking.
“ISAAC is far more than just a management tool for our robotics and spacecraft systems,” said Trey Smith, the project manager for ISAAC at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “Our long-term vision is that it can transform a spacecraft into an autonomous robotic system itself.”
NASA’s future Artemis missions to the Moon and beyond will take humans farther than they ever have before – and a host of robotic and mechanical systems will go with them. On the space station, much closer to home, astronauts have been able to stay full time, surpassing 20 years of continuous human presence – something that won’t be possible in deep space for some time. How can future spacecraft operate smoothly without that consistent human touch? ISAAC aims to deliver technologies to enable remote and autonomous caretaking during long periods of time when the astronauts are not aboard to perform maintenance, logistics management, and utilization tasks, as well as when communicating with ground controllers is limited or simply unavailable.
Meet ISAAC, Integrating Robots with the Space Stations of the Future, Frank Tavares, NASA’s Ames Research Center