Two Project Tango phones, Google's fancy experiment that's capable of understanding space, are headed to the International Space Station. ITWorld reports the devices will be launched in a supply mission scheduled to launch in May. The technology will be used to help NASA build smarter robots, which could some day navigate the inside (or outside) of the ISS without human assistance. If all goes according to plan, NASA could even use Project Tango's data to one day use a robot on the agency's planned asteroid landing mission.
Google's project is part of its Advanced Technology and Projects group, which is a leftover from Motorola Mobility. Devices in the experiment will be running with advanced processing chips capable of "human-like understanding of space and motion." This will help with things such as 3D scanning, indoor navigation and more immersive gaming, among other use cases. On the ISS, Project Tango will help NASA process position, orientation and depth data. It can then use that information to create more accurate 3D maps.
NASA's robots are already being worked on at its Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, so it's just a matter of getting all the proper information and applying it. The agency has actually built a robot development platform with Project Tango in mind, called Sphere, which is essentially a soccer ball with a Tango handset attached. Spheres have been used before, most notably with a Nexus S as part of Shuttle mission STS-135 in 2012, but with Tango involved, Sphere will have many more capabilities.
"We are researching how effective Project Tango's vision-based navigation capabilities are for performing localization and navigation of a mobile free flyer on ISS," said Andres Martinez, Spheres Manager at NASA. "Specifically, we are researching how well the 3-D modeling and visual odometry can be used to let the (Spheres) free flyer learn its environment and maneuver through it based on what it sees."
Beyond building robots capable of navigating the inside of space ships, imagine how Tango could help the military or law enforcement during relief efforts. Using autonomous robots to search through areas struck by natural disasters could be incredibly valuable when searching for missing persons. NASA, for now, believes the technology will help with identifying, approaching and analyzing a target. More specifically, an asteroid. The agency has already demonstrated how Sphere and Tango can work together, ITWorld says, but the real test will be when Tango is sent to the ISS in May.