The International Space Station (ISS) is about to get a strange new crew member. The Crew Interactive Mobile Companion – or CIMON for short – is described by Airbus as a kind of flying brain, and will assist with experiments during the upcoming Horizons mission.

CIMON began as an assistance system concept funded by Airbus, but was then commissioned as a full project by the Space Administration of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and is now worked on by 50 researchers from Airbus, DLR, IBM, Reichert Design and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich.

It's about the size of a medicine ball (32 cm/12.5 inches in diameter), weighs somewhere in the region of 5 kg (11 lb), is made from plastic and metal, and constructed using 3D printing technology. And it's heading for the ISS to be put through its paces by geophysicist Dr. Alexander Gerst during ESA's upcoming Horizons mission, which will be the astronaut's second stint aboard the space station (the first being the Blue Dot mission in 2014).

"CIMON is a personal assistant capable of voice and facial recognition," said project lead at Space Systems in Friedrichshafen Till Eisenberg. "We want to study the psychological effects of long space missions on crew members and try out suitable countermeasures, especially those that reduce stress. We will place special emphasis on data mining and interactions between humans and AI."

CIMON has been designed as a social, interactive, free-flying system to support routine tasks undertaken by astronauts, displaying procedures on its front-facing 8-inch screen, for example, or offering solutions to problems. It could even act as an early warning system for technical problems.

Reported to be the first artificial intelligence system to take part in an ISS mission, the mobile, autonomous flyer has been trained using IBM's Watson, and makes use of IBM's AI tech to gather knowledge as it goes. It's been pre-loaded with plans of the Columbus module of the ISS and can keep itself upright as it moves around at up to 1 m/s.

But for the June to October Horizons mission it will be limited to helping Dr. Gerst perform various tasks, including collaborating to solve a Rubik's cube and making use of CIMON's camera to help with a complex medical experiment. The camera can be controlled by ISS crew members or by ground staff, and is designed to "provide high quality video data of complex activities, which is of high value for the science groups on Earth and will help for data evaluation."

Source: Airbus

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