NASA flying robot working aboard the space station.

The population of the International Space Station (ISS) has just gone up, but the newest residents are not human. Last month, several small cube-shaped robots arrived, and now NASA has released an image of the Astrobee robot working aboard the space station.

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NASA delivered the Astrobee robots to the ISS on April 17 aboard a Northrop Grumman resupply mission. The robot in the image is called “Bumble” and there are two more of the same design called “Honey” and “Queen.” The Astrobee system was designed and built at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley specifically for use aboard the ISS. Robots on Earth rely on wheels, treads, or legs to get around, but none of those are any good in space. The Astrobee robots are free-flying, able to zip around the ISS using small electric fans at the behest of ground control or astronauts on the station.

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NASA’s goal with Bumble and its siblings is to automate some of the menial tasks on the station, freeing up astronauts to do things that only humans can do. Actually, having a small robot designed specifically for operation aboard the station could make some of those menial tasks more efficient. The Astrobee robots are one foot square with integrated cameras and sensors that allow them to take inventory, document experiments, inspect ISS systems, and haul cargo through the station’s tight corridors.

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In the newly released image, NASA astronaut Anne McClain performs the first tests on Bumble. This is a simple hardware checkout for the robot and its docking module. Whenever the robots run low on juice, they navigate back to the dock and recharge. Bumble isn’t the first robot to live on the ISS. The crew got a robot called CIMON last year, but that was an experimental AI companion robot that didn’t have much real utility. Astronauts have also had the SPHERES robots on the station for the last decade. Those robots have helped NASA learn about how robots can move around the station and be helpful to astronauts. They have very limited uses right now, but NASA plans to fully replace SPHERES with Astrobees as soon as testing is complete.

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The hope is that robots like Bumble, Honey, and Queen will be able to perform maintenance on spacecraft when humans are not present or in areas where humans can’t reach. This could be essential to future missions to the moon, Mars, and beyond.


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