Meet CIMON, the 1st Robot with Artificial Intelligence to Fly in Space

(Space.com) – A beautiful space-exploration friendship between human and machine may have just begun. Packed with more than 5,900 pounds of research, crew supplies and hardware, the SpaceX’s mission to the International Space Station (ISS) also included a new crew member quite unlike any other – a small robot endowed with artificial intelligence (AI).

The name of the new addition is CIMON (pronounced Simon) and stands for “Crew Interactive Mobile Companion.” Its mission is relatively short and modest. But its work off-Earth could help pave the way for some pretty big things, according to NASA officials.  “Having AI — having that knowledge base and the ability to tap into it in a way that’s useful for the task that you’re doing — is really critical for having humans further and further away from the planet,” Kirk Shireman, NASA’s International Space Station (ISS) program manager. “We have to have autonomy,” he added. “We’ll have to have tools like this to have the species successfully live far away from Earth.”

A small robot named CIMON (short for “Crew Interactive Mobile Companion”) will arrive at the International Space Station on July 2, 2018. CIMON is the first robot with artificial intelligence ever to fly to space, project team members said. Credit: DLR/T. Bourry/ESA

 

A smart flying sphere

CIMON was developed by the European aerospace company Airbus on behalf of the German space agency, which is known by its German acronym, DLR. The robot’s AI is IBM’s famous Watson system.

CIMON is about the size of a volleyball and weighs 11 lbs. (5 kilograms). It can see, hear, talk and comprehend, as well as develop additional abilities as it continues to interact with crew members. While conversing with people, it can identify whom it’s talking to thanks to facial-recognition software. (CIMON has a face of its own — a simple cartoon one.) The astronaut assistant is also mobile; once aboard the ISS, CIMON can fly around by sucking air in and expelling it through special tubes.

Though CIMON is flexible enough to interact with anyone, it’s “tailored to” European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst. While on the ISS, German astronaut Alexander Gerst and CIMON worked on experiments with crystals and a Rubik’s cube, as well as to conducted a medical experiment where CIMON served as a flying camera. IBM actually trained CIMON’s AI using Gerst’s voice, and the current version of the robot responds to his commands specifically. It will help space agencies around the world figure out whether AI support is feasible or even advisable for future use on long-duration missions.

A close-up of CIMON, the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion, an A.I.-equipped robot that is the first of its kind to fly in space. In the background (from left to right) are: CIMON project manager Christian Karrasch; Till Eisenberg CIMON project lead at Airbus; and Christoph Kossl, Airbus software systems engineer.
A close-up of CIMON, the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion, an A.I.-equipped robot that is the first of its kind to fly in space. In the background (from left to right) are: CIMON project manager Christian Karrasch; Till Eisenberg CIMON project lead at Airbus; and Christoph Kossl, Airbus software systems engineer. Credit: DLR/T. Bourry/ESA

 

CIMON can access lots of relevant information, including photos and videos, about the procedure in question. And the astronaut assistant is smart enough to deal with “questions beyond the procedure” that Gerst might have, Schulien added.

“The goal is for A.I. to be more like a smart assistant collaborating with the scientist and less like programming assembly code,” said Steve Chien, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and senior research scientist on autonomous space systems. “It allows scientists to focus on the ‘thinking’ things — analyzing and interpreting data — while robotic explorers search out features of interest.”

 

CIMON’s mission is a technology demonstration designed to show researchers how humans and machines can interact and collaborate in the space environment. It’ll be a while before intelligent robots are ready to do any really heavy lifting in the final frontier — say, helping astronauts repair damaged spacecraft systems or treating sick crewmembers. But that day is probably coming.

“For us, this is a piece of the future of human spaceflight,” said Christian Karrasch, CIMON project leader at DLR. “If you go out to the moon or to Mars, you cannot take all mankind and engineers with you. So, the astronauts, they will be on their own. But with an artificial intelligence, you have instantly all the knowledge of mankind.”

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This article was adapted from the original version published here at Space.com.

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