Nasa sends Google Tango smartphones into space to power robots

Smartphones are on the way into space after Nasa confirmed that it equipping Google 3D handsets onto free-flying robots to act as the eyes and brain of them.

Related: A closer look at how Google’s Project Tango could be truly revolutionary

Google’s Project Tango smartphones will power the robots, known as Spheres [Synchronised Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental satellites], and make sure the current limited functionality is given a much-needed improvement.

"We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors," Spheres project manager Chris Provencher told Reuters. "As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realised the answer was in our hands. Let's just use smartphones."

Nasa first sent robots to the International Space Station [ISS] in 2006 and since then they have only been capable of a limited range of movements achieved using small jets of CO2.

The agency’s Ames Research Centre engineers started thinking about using smartphones when trying to devise a way to make robots smarter and more use to astronauts. It tested out the capabilities of smartphones on the ISS by purchasing low end models from Best Buy and sent them into Space. They were then attached to Spheres and this gave the robots better vision and senses.

Google’s Project Tango phones use 3D cameras to replicate a human level of understanding when it comes to space and motion. When on board the ISS the phones will use motion-tracking cameras and infrared to navigate around safely.

Nasa plans to launch the smartphones into space on 11 July and they will replace the models sent up in earlier missions, and scientists are praising Nasa’s ingenuity for making the move.

Google’s Project Tango devices will be released to consumers in 2015 and it announced the development of a new device at the recent Google I/O 2014 event in San Francisco.

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