Everywhere we look — from the voice assistant systems in our homes to making digital payments at the local kirana store, technology touches our lives in every step that we take. So, why not allow technology to ease our lives in outer space?
Two years ago, Airbus partnered with IBM and German Aerospace Center DLR to explore innovative opportunities and space exploration projects. In September 2019, they launched an artificial intelligence-powered robot in space — CIMON (spelt as Simon). The short for Crew Interactive Mobile Companion, CIMON is a free-floating and sphere-shaped interactive companion robot that accompanies astronauts to space on ISS (International Space Station).
Last year, Airbus announced the updated version of the AI-backed astronaut assistant CIMON-2. More recently, Airbus said that CIMON-2 is being loaded with new tasks.
CIMON was developed and built by Airbus with the help of scientists from the Ludwig-Maximilian University to accompany astronauts on space missions. Project CIMON is backed by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.
CIMON can see, hear, understand and speak. IBM Cloud’s Watson AI technology powers its voice-controlled AI. It is equipped with a stereo camera, a high-resolution camera for face recognition, and two lateral cameras for images and video documentation. Thus, it can be used to perform routine tasks, including documenting experiments, searching for objects, and inventorying.
CIMON is also loaded with ultrasonic sensors to measure distances for collision detection. It has eight microphones to recognise the direction and a directional microphone for improved speech recognition for ears.
CIMON cannot be self-taught, and data has to be essentially fed by humans to train the AI assistant. BIOTESC at the University of Lucerne makes sure that the AI assistant works seamlessly in the Columbus module of ISS by supporting CIMON’s interactions with the astronauts from the ground.
To know more about CIMON’s specs and origin, check our previous article here.
CIMON-2 will be taking on scientific experiments on-board the ISS, accompanying ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer, providing “Educational services from orbit.”
Interestingly, Airbus and DLR have signed a contract comprising up to four astronaut missions, working with four humans on the orbital outpost. CIMON-2 will undergo the upgrade while being onboarded, and engineers will first test its software before allowing it to participate in complex experiments. The latest mission will be focusing on the operational and scientific use of CIMON-2.
The sphere-shaped AI assistant is receiving new software packages, updated with new safety standards, and fed with new scientific procedures. According to Airbus, the scientific study termed ‘Human interaction with AI and CIMON’ will be focusing on CIMON-2 itself as the research subject. Additionally, CIMON will be upgraded to support routine tasks and documentation of complex scientific tasks. This will be the first time that CIMON-2 will guide a complete experimental procedure.
Secondly, the AI-powered astronaut assistant will be providing scientific support for an educational experiment — ‘3D kinetic gas theory.’ The experiment will explain the properties of gases.
Post CIMON-2’s upgradation from CIMON, the AI assistant is attuned to astronauts’ emotional states and takes less time to react. Unlike earlier, when it took 10 seconds to react, developers have improved its software architecture, and CIMON-2 takes only two seconds to respond.
What does the future hold?
After the completion of the four missions, researchers plan to have secured enough datasets to do a justified analysis of CIMON-2’s capabilities. Thus, enabling the AI-powered astronaut assistant to perform more complex tasks in the future. As of now, CIMON-2 has been trained to navigate the European Columbus module of ISS. Moving ahead, if the present experiment is a success, the team of researchers and developers plan to make CIMON independent of the ground-based data centre.
While talking about AI assistants in space, one cannot not mention Robonaut — NASA’s companion for astronauts in ISS. Delivered in 2011, the robotic torso was designed to help the crew by holding tools.
While having an AI assistant on expeditions to the moon and Mars would be highly acknowledged and be helpful to astronauts, the assistants need to be automated. Waiting to receive instructions from Earth would be inconvenient and time-consuming. The potential to explore outer space with AI is massive, and the future ensures artificial intelligence propelling the astral navigation space.