Project Tango handsets will be tested aboard the International Space Station, to help with 3D sensing

As the old saying goes "it takes two to tango."
Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android advanced research project, Project Tango, has found an idea dancing partner with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) preparing to test its novel mobile device-based augmented reality technology aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
I. Painting Portals to New Visions
Google's Project Tango is one of numerous deep research efforts at the internet and mobile device platform and service firm.  

A project vision statement on Google describes:
We are physical beings that live in a 3D world. Yet, our mobile devices assume that physical world ends at the boundaries of the screen.  The goal of Project Tango is to give mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion.
Our team has been working with universities, research labs, and industrial partners spanning nine countries around the world to build on the last decade of research in robotics and computer vision, concentrating that technology into a unique mobile device. We are putting early prototypes into the hands of developers that can imagine the possibilities and help bring those ideas into reality.
Project Tango

Recently, Google teamed with LG Electronics Inc. (KRX:066570)(KRX:066575) and NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA) to offer up a tablet which implemented some of Project Tango's highly experimental 3D mapping technologies in a form suitable for testing in the real world.  Featuring a K1 processor from NVIDIA and "as much RAM and storage as a laptop" this 7-inch tablet development kit is starting to trickle out to select parties.

Project Tango phone
A Project Tango phone test device [Image Source: Google]
The magic happens thanks to a mixture of hardware (the imaging sensor and optical stabilization system), firmware (the post-processing algorithms), and software (logging and other higher level algorithms in Android) which allow the tablet to process what it sees in 3D into useful information, similar to the human brain.

Tango cameras are highly similar to Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Kinect.  They map spaces via looking for hard angles when panning.  And soft curves are handled via an infrared depth sensor.
II. See With Your Mind, Feel the Force Flowing Through You
The technology will receive perhaps its most serious real world test yet when it goes aboard the ISS later this month.  Once there it will be used to enhance the SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) system.

A shot of the three SPHERES microsatellites floating in microgravity. [Image Source: NASA/ISS]
SPHERES currently consists of three microsatellites.  Inspired by the "Training Remotes" from Star Wars, SPHERES is being used to test formation flying, a key to future spaceflight and maintenance of spacecraft.  NASA hopes to one day use SPHERES' successor to replace much of the time-consuming interior maintenance work aboard the ISS or its future successors.

NASA's SPHERE robots currently inhabit the ISS.
One of NASA's top labs -- the Ames Research Center (ARC) -- shares the town with Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.  The ARC developed and launched the robots in 2006.  They're currently capable of floating around the microgravity environment of the international space station, similar to the aforementioned mini-droid in Star Wars.  They navigate via sending off jets of carbon dioxide, which is eventually scrubbed out by the space station's life support system.  They can travel at speeds of up to an inch per second.

Star Wars Training Remote
The microsatellites were inspired by the Star Wars training remote. [Image Source: LucasFilm]
The problem is that in their initial form the robots were kind of dumb and weren't good for all that much.  They couldn't even safely navigate around the 3D interior of the ISS without a human operator guiding them.
III. A Tantalizing Tango
Since 2010 ARC has been working on ways to make its neat toy a little more useful.  Quickly ARC began eyeing Google's Android ecosystem, but at first it was just from the perspective of using off the shelf Android handsets as low-cost sensors.
NASA's approach to adding smartphone sensors to the robots was very much an off-the-shelf design strategy.  Android smartphones were purchased at Best Buy Comp., Inc. (BBY) and modified to have larger batteries and hardier shatter-proofed displays.  The devices were then sent on board the ISS.  Once there they were split open so both the camera sensors and the display were facing on the surface of the robots, attached to the surface of the SPHERES robots by some Velcro.

NASA project manager Chris Provencher examines the SPHERES device. [Image Source: Reuters]
Smart SPHERES project manager Chris Provencher commented to Reuters in an interview:
We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors. As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realized the answer was in our hands.  Let's just use smartphones.
The latest twist has come as Google became interested in the application and reached out to NASA offering to lend a hand with Project Tango.  NASA accepted and is now ready to put Tango into the SPHERE robots, which will proceed to map out the station's interior.

Mr. Provencher comments:
This type of capability is exactly what we need for a robot that's going to do tasks anywhere inside the space station.  It has to have a very robust navigation system.
While most terrestrial applications of Project Tango have focused on its role in boosting augmented reality applications such as gaming or education apps, the NASA project highlights the potential of Project Tango devices to act as sophisticated 3D sensors.  Much like Kinect has been applied to a number of research projects, Tango sensors could soon be offering scientific insight as well as added value to devices.
NASA hopes to eventually get the fleet of microrobots smart enough that it can fly them outside the station as well, where maintenance is not only time-consuming (like interior maintenance), but also dangerous to astronauts.
The International Space Station is mankind's largest long-term space station.

The project is a win for Google, as well, as it should help it test out technologies (including Tango) that will help its microsatellite fleet avoid collisions and perform other useful maneuvers.
Google recently bought Skybox a record-setting HD imaging company that uses a growing network of short-lived microsatellites.  Google is looking to expand Skybox's fleet over the next couple years, to add bleeding edge high definition data to Google Earth -- the likes of which was only previously available to the spy and defense agencies of the world's top economic superpowers, such as the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).
IV. Launch Also a Crucial Test for Orbital Sciences' Unmanned Cargo Platform
The fresh round of Android devices carrying the Tango technology will be ferried to the ISS via an Antares rocket, an automated orbital cargo platform from Orbital Sciences Corp. (ORB) -- the chief rival of Elon Musk's SpaceX.
Both companies were contracted under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program; an effort Congress hopes will stoke private space enterprise while cutting NASA's operating costs.
A $1.9B USD contract was awarded in Dec. 2008 to Orbital Sciences to cover delivering 20 tons of cargo aboard eight flights through 2016.  Orbital Sciences' rocket is dubbed Antares and its resupply craft is the Cygnus CRS Orb-1 ("Standard").  The Cyngus Orb-1 can only carry 2,000 kg (4,400 lb) of cargo to the space station, but an upgrade to expand capacity is planned for the next few launches.
Antares rocket

SpaceX was awarded -- also in Dec. 2008 -- a $1.6B USD contract through 2016 for a minimum of 12 flights and 20 tons (20,000 kg/44,000 lb) worth of delivered cargo.  SpaceX's contract has extra options that could award it up to $3.1B USD in total, if it delivers more than 20 tons/12 flights.  SpaceX's current rocket is called the Falcon 9 v1.1, while its resupply craft is the third generation automated, unmanned Dragon capsule, the Dragon CRS-3.  
The SpaceX capsule is currently built to carry 3,310 kg (7,300 lb) of pressurized payload.  A key advantage of the Dragon vehicle is that it can return to Earth with either 2,500 kg (5,500 lb) of unpressurized cargo or 2,500 kg of pressurized cargo that can be retrieved when the Dragon capsule splashes down.

So far Antares has successfully completed three deliveries in three launches, versus SpaceX whose Falcon 9 rocket has delivered nine payloads successfully in nine launches, including the second generation Falcon 9 v1.1 design, which saw its first actual orbital cargo run in Sept. 2013.  The Falcon 9 v1.1 is scheduled to make August, October, and December cargo runs to the ISS.
Orbital Sciences will launch a Cygnus resupply craft in October, as well.  The launch will test the company's new heavier Castor XL stage.  If all goes well in Jan. or Feb. 2015 Orbital Sciences will use that new stage to launch an "enhanced" version of Cygnus, which packs 700 kilograms (1,600 lb) more cargo.

Sources: Google [YouTube], Reuters

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