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‘Flying brain’ designed to follow German astronaut launches Friday

German Chancellor Angela Merkel interacts with a "floating brain" device code-named CIMON -- designed to aid astronauts aboard the International Space Station -- at a Berlin aerospace exhibit in April 2018
AFP

Tampa (AFP) – A floating, ball-shaped, artificial intelligence robot, specially trained to follow around a German astronaut at the International Space Station, is scheduled to blast off Friday on its ground-breaking mission. 

The basketball-sized device called CIMON — shortened from Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN — was described as a “flying brain” by Manfred Jaumann, head of microgravity payloads at Airbus.

It launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Friday at 5:42 am (0942 GMT), along with some 5,900 pounds (2,700 kilograms) of gear packed aboard SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon cargo capsule.

CIMON’s activation will mark “a historical moment,” becoming the first robot of its kind to interact with people in space, said Christian Karrasch, CIMON project manager at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), during a NASA press briefing Thursday.

A project in the works for the past two years, CIMON has been trained to recognize the voice and face of Alexander Gerst, 42, a geophysicist with the European Space Agency.

When Gerst calls to CIMON, the floating robot will acoustically sense where Gerst is calling from, orient itself that way, and zoom over.

Hovering at the astronauts’ eye level, its front camera can detect if the person in front of it is indeed Gerst, or someone else.

CIMON will be powered by more than a dozen propellers to help it jet around and avoid bumping into things inside the Columbus module of the space lab.

“This is designed to work in English. It understands Alexander,” said Bret Greenstein, global vice president of Watson Internet of Things Offerings at IBM.

“It was helpful to train it to recognize him so that it will come to him when he speaks.”

All six crew members at the orbiting outpost can speak to CIMON, though it has been taught to work best with Gerst.

– Hands-free AI –

Experts say the experiment is more than just a smart phone-type device that follows astronauts around.

The metal and plastic intelligent robot, built using 3D printing, works together with people as a team, and allows astronauts to communicate hands-free via voice commands.

CIMON will work with the space station’s Watson AI — IBM’s artificial intelligence technology — designed to support space flight crews.

Partners in the project include Airbus, The German Aerospace Center (DLR), IBM and the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich (LMU).

The goal for this flight is mainly to demonstrate the technology works.

Three experiments are planned: one using crystals, one with a Rubik’s cube and finally, a medical experiment in which CIMON will be employed as a flying camera, according to DLR.

The robot is designed to guide Gerst through various science procedures, and show videos or pictures as needed.

Gerst can also ask the robot questions beyond the simple procedure at hand.

CIMON is equipped with a microphone on back, an infrared camera on the front, two batteries, and perhaps most importantly, an “offline” button.

Once toggled to “offline,” Gerst can be sure nothing he is saying is streamed down to the IBM server on Earth.

Once back on, voice recordings are activated again.

Researchers say CIMON is not yet trained to respond to all possible emergencies and protocols on the space station.

However, the AI robot is programmed to learn, and they hope to further hone its capabilities in the years to come.

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