Free-flying space robots can be used when humas are present to off-load routine work, to increase astronaut productivity, and to handle contingencies. The International Space Station (ISS), for example, is a continuously manned orbital laboratory the size of a large house, which contains many thousands of inventory items and hundreds of diverse payloads and experiments – all of which have to be managed by 6 person crew. To help with this, NASA is developing and testing robotic free-flyers on the ISS.
SPHERES is an ISS facility with three nano-satellites designed to
research estimation, control, and autonomy algorithms. SPHERES are volleyball sized, have their own power, propulsion and navigation systems, and work on the ISS under astronaut supervision. For more than 10 years, NASA has made SPHERES available to other U.S. government agencies, schools, commercial companies and students as a platform for science, technology development, and education.
SPHERES will soon be succeeded by the new Astrobee free-flying robot. Astrobee builds on the success of SPHERES, but in addition to research, the robot will also be used for housekeeping and monitoring duties without astronaut supervision. Astrobee makes extensive use of open-source (the complete software stack is available on GitHub) and is scheduled to be installed on the ISS in late Spring 2018.
Jose Benavides leads the NASA International Space Station (ISS) Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) and Astrobee Facility. The SPHERES Facility (http://www.nasa.gov/spheres) is one of the most used and popular ISS National Labs with over 80 on-board test sessions and 400+ hours of on-orbit activities to date. Jose has a bachelors and masters degree in Electrical Engineering from Arizona State University. His hobbies include reading, ham-radio, computer networking, and wood working.