Flying Robot Drones Make Life Easier on the International Space Station

An article I wrote for Electronic Products.

Smart SPHERES, NASA’s free-flying robotic satellites, are built to assist astronauts during space exploration

Robots flying around in space seem more like fiction than reality, but recently NASA has been testing their free-flying robots called Smart SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) in the International Space Station (ISS).

Self-contained with power, propulsion, computing, and navigation equipment, the purpose of these volleyball-sized spherical robots, which have been on the Space Station since 2006, is to perform simple, routine tasks on the ISS, such as in-flight maintenance to keep the Space Station safe and habitable for humans. To receive more information from the inside of the ISS from Earth, NASA’s Intelligent Robotics Group added an expansion port to each satellite for usage of additional sensors and appendages, such as cameras and wireless transfer systems.


The SPHERES have been on the Space Station since 2006 and were originally developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and NASA Small Business Innovation Research funding. Image via

To transform the SPHERES into Smart SPHERES, project engineers at NASA equipped the free-flying satellites with an Android phone, the Nexus S, to function as the brains of the flying robots. By connecting a smartphone, the SPHERES immediately became more intelligent and automatically had a built-in camera to take pictures and videos, sensors to help with conducting inspections, a powerful computing unit for calculations, and a Wi-Fi connection that can be used to transfer data in real time to the ISS and Mission Control. The Nexus S was chosen because it’s easy to take apart and simple to program.  Read More