A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched to the International Space Station (ISS) in the wee hours Friday morning. The unmanned mission will bring new supplied and instruments to the station, along with something a bit… different. A floating robotic head called CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile Companion) will soon be buzzing around the ISS.
CIMON is a project from German Aerospace Center, Airbus, and IBM. The floating head will arrive at the station on Monday as the autonomous Dragon capsule links up with the crew. At its most basic level, CIMON will act as a flying camera. Using fans and maneuvering fins, CIMON will zip around the station to serve as a camera to monitor experiments and repairs.
This robot doesn’t have a body, but IBM seemed keen to avoid any direct HAL 9000 comparisons. Rather than an unsettling red eye, CIMON has a pleasant face adorning a large display on the front (if a spherical robot has a front). It weighs in at 11 pounds (5 kg) and is a little larger than a human head.
Astronaut Alexander Gerst will conduct all the initial testing of CIMON — CIMON was actually trained to recognize Gerst’s voice and appearance. During their time together, the pair will conduct three procedures. The human and robot will work together to solve a Rubik’s Cube. That’s fun, but the robot will also help with an experiment on crystal formation in space. It will also assist Gerst on a complex medical experiment by acting as a camera relay.
This robot is more than a flying camera — it can also chat with the crew using IBM’s Watson AI. It understands natural language and can respond to many queries. It also learns over time to become more useful to ISS crew. The AI has been tuned to understand space lingo and common issues that pop up aboard a space station. IBM believes that CIMON’s presence and ability to make small talk will also help astronauts cope with the stress of spaceflight. For example, if CIMON thinks an astronaut is expressing a longing for home, it can reply in a more “sympathetic” voice.
There are no plans to bring CIMON back to Earth. IBM hopes the floating AI head will remain active on the ISS for years to come, where it will help conduct experiments and listen to everyone’s problems. Someone just has to remember to recharge it every now and then.
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