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This year NASA, in collaboration with various other Space Agencies, held its fourth annual International Space Apps Challenge in Limassol, Cyprus. The event presented its applicants with a variety of complex problems to solve in either the fields of Earth Studies, Human Health Research, Space Exploration or Robotics.
As part of the “Zero Gee Bee – Your friendly neighbourhood drone” challenge (under the robotics division), NASA tasked master hackers and engineers with designing a drone that would be able to assist astronauts in a zero gravity environment. The result of this challenge was ArachnoBeeA, which was also awarded with the “Best Mission Concept” prize by NASA.
The creators of this innovative zero gravity space drone was a team assembled from the Cyprus Space Exploration Organisation (CSEO), a company “established by key international people in industry and academia based in Cyprus” that promotes scientific research and development in the field of space exploration.
CSEO had this to say about the project: “We took this challenge ever further, designing a completely autonomous drone, aware of its location and surroundings, capable of navigating its way around the station, avoiding collision, locating particular objects, as well as astronauts, and keeping track of their movement, fine navigating and picking up objects, recharcing, etc.”
As you can see this was no menial task and there was an array of challenges to overcome before this concept was realised. That being said, you have to remember we are talking about some of today’s greatest minds and obviously they managed to stun the competition with their inventive design.
One of the main problems they faced was, of course, the lack of gravity. With no gravity a normal drone has no way to tell which side is up or down and therefore wouldn’t be able to orientate itself in a gravity free environment.
Gravity is also one of the main factors that contribute to concrete movement like stopping and moving. In space everything just pointlessly drifts around. If an object gains any momentum it will literally just float in that direction forever. This makes it quite hard for a drone to carefully manoeuvre around.
The CESO team came up with some ingenious methods to overcoming these obstacles.
Firstly, they designed a series of sensors that could be placed around the ship, which are constantly communicating with ArachnoBeeA and telling it how to orientate itself and move through the ship while avoiding obstacles and tracking down specific objects.
Then to beat the problem of stable movement CESO equipped the drone with legs that enables it to move around in any gasless environment, small arms fitted with a grabbing mechanism and even a vacuum to suck itself to any surface.
“In solving these problems, we used already existing and proven technologies like RIFD (Radio Frequency Identification), quadcopter drone design, and off-the-shelf components, but we also used some of the cutting edge tech like RF-based indoor locations systems, computer vision algoritthims, etc.”
The NASA judging committee selected the ArachnooBeeA project as the winner among 950 other projects from 135 locations around the world and was one of the six global winners in the International Space Challenge 2015.
At present the ArachnoBeeA space drone is still only a design and is yet to manifest as a fully functional physical reality. But it is another extremely promising and creative concept that marks a remarkable point in time where we are seeing and experiencing daily innovation. Science and technology is evolving at such a rapid rate that soon it will catch up with the foreign and mysterious world of Sci-Fi.