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Free-floating Ubuntu social bot chats up astronauts on International Space Station

Nov 30, 2018 — by Eric Brown — 630 views

An Ubuntu-powered social robot called CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile CompaniON) has begun work on the International Space Station. The self-navigating bot recognizes faces and answers questions relayed to a ground-based IBM Watson computer.

A social robot with an Ubuntu OS has launched on the International Space Station (ISS) to answer astronauts’ questions via voice and an 8-inch display. On Nov. 15, German astronaut Alexander Gerst demonstrated the CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile CompaniON) robot in action, showing off its facial recognition, voice assistance, and ability to autonomously navigate in the weightless environment of the ISS. CIMON can also play music, document results of experiments, or search for objects using its image recognition capability.

CIMON on the ISS with Alexander Gerst
(click images to enlarge)

The 3D-printed robot is designed jointly by the German space agency DLR along with Airbus. IBM supplies the ground-based IBM Watson supercomputer that answers questions relayed through CIMON. There are also contributions from Ludwig Maximilian University Hospital in Munich and the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Lucerne, Switzerland.

Robonaut 2

Unlike NASA’s earlier, Ubuntu-powered Robonaut 2 (R2) — a humanoid bot that has performed duties on the ISS — CIMON lacks appendages and can perform no physical work. (This would appear to offer a suitable alibi for the mystery hole found in the side of a Russian module attached to the ISS.)

Unlike the R2, CIMON can navigate on its on using a series of fans, and it’s chatty and super smart thanks to the Watson connection. CIMON avoids the need to ivnteract with a floating laptop while keeping astronauts’ hands free for work. CIMON is also an experiment to see if social robots can help ward off the loneliness of isolated space travelers.

Indeed, the almost spherical CIMON looks a bit like Wilson, the volleyball, who kept Tom Hanks company in the movie “Cast Away.” However, in the first of the two videos farther below, he seems to share some of the petulance and sensitivity of the HAL 9000 computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” (Soon, no doubt, it will be able to lip read.)

During Gerst’s demonstration, CIMON successfully searched for and recognized Gerst’s face, and then answered questions, and took photos and video. It also offered instructions for performing a student-designed experiment with crystals.

Like other voicebots ranging from Alexa and Google Assistant to the voice agents found on social robots like the One, Pepper, iPal, or Jibo, CIMON can translate spoken words to text and back again. Like most voice platforms, it sends the queries off to a cloud AI platform. In this case, however, CIMON is above the clouds, and the IBM Watson supercomputer is below.

CIMON (left) and its Ubuntu-driven display
(click images to enlarge)

CIMON’s WiFi signal connects to the ISS satellite communications link, which sends the question to the Biotechnology Space Support Center in Lucerne. A second connection relays data to an AI-enhanced IBM Watson computer in Frankfurt, Germany. The second video below suggests that CIMON can also operate to some degree without the Watson connection, and that Watson may be able to improve the responses of the local Ubuntu computer. Still, its conversational skills and intelligence would likely be limited without Watson.

Back in July when CIMON was launched into space, OMGUbuntu spotted Ubuntu at work on CIMON’s 8-inch screen, which shows an animated face when not otherwise displaying information. According to a Nov. 16 CIMON announcement from IBM, the 5-kilogram bot uses two cameras for facial recognition while five additional cameras are used for orientation and video documentation. There’s a speaker and an 8-microphone array for directional recognition, as well as a directional microphone for speech recognition.

A dozen internal fans enable CIMON to move at 1 meter per second and rotate in all directions. “CIMON can turn to a particular astronaut when addressed, nod or shake its head and follow the astronaut spatially, independently or on command,” says IBM.

CIMON is second extraterrestrial Linux story in recent days. Also this week, Gumstix announced that the MarCO CubeSat satellites that accompanied the Mars Insight mission and confirmed its landing on Mars, integrate Linux-driven Gumstix Overo IronStorm-Y modules that control Gumstix Capa VL cameras.

CIMON in action on ISS

CIMON overview video


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