International Space Station's spherical flying robot speaks up for the first time
A first-of-its-kind robotic helper has completed its first day on the job at the International Space Station, with ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst powering up the CIMON assistance system and putting its conversational skills to the test.
CIMON, which stands for Crew Interactive Mobile CompanioN, is a medicine-ball-sized plastic sphere that was 3D printed and equipped with software by IBM Watson for AI capabilities. Built by Airbus for the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the free-flying robot is made to float around the ISS and provide its astronauts with support for routine tasks, as well as companionship and a form of stress relief.
The robot was fired up for the first time last month, with Gerst carrying out his first interactions over the course of a 90-minute session, glimpses of which can be seen in the video below. In it, he can be seen telling CIMON to wake up, asking the robot its name, where it comes from, and even having it play his favourite song "Machine Man," by German band Kraftwerk.
Things then go beyond the small talk, as CIMON displays and voices instructions for a crystallization experiment, tests out its ultrasonic sensors and streams video using its front-facing cameras. This was intended as a demonstration of its ability to assist crew members in a variety of ways.
"It is an incredible feeling and absolutely fantastic to be able to experience CIMON actually seeing, hearing, understanding and speaking," says Dr Christian Karrasch, CIMON Project Manager at DLR. "This first, real deployment in space has made aerospace history, and marks the start of what will hopefully be a long deployment on the ISS. I am fascinated by interactions with artificial intelligence. The CIMON system is the only one of its kind, and was designed specifically for deployment on the International Space Station. We are entering uncharted territory and pushing the boundaries of technological expertize in Germany."
You can see CIMON and Gerst interact in the video below.