Books written by Ray Sullivan

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

iPhones to help control spacecraft

I've banged on about the way consumer products are making their way into aerospace applications by the back door before, first with a rant about iPads and Kindles being used to provide electronic manuals in flight and more recently in a posting about an Android phone blasted into space to prove or disprove the Alien tagline 'in space nobody can hear you scream'.

Well, the guys and gals at the European Space Agency (ESA), Europe's answer to NASA, are at it now, but at least they are leaving the mobile phones on the ground.

They've noticed that a gadget that is becoming very popular has a technical similarity to a device they are developing for use in space.  The gadget is the Parrot AR Drone Quadricopter, a mouthful sober or drunk and currently retailing in the UK for about £300.

The price tag makes it accessible to many people with a yen to play with a remote control helicopter-like model aircraft and keeps its price down by letting the purchaser supply the control unit by downloading an app for their iPhone, iPad or Android machine.

ESA are also playing with remotely piloted vehicles and are struggling with the way humans control them.  Perhaps it's the bulky gloves astronauts tend to wear, but controlling the space-borne flying robots are proving a challenge to them.  But they've noticed that there's a lot in common between the way we interact with the Quadricopter and how the space robot is controlled.

They have developed an iPhone app that taps into the cameras on the Quadricopter that lets the users play a game with their device attempting to dock with a virtual airlock.  Points are awarded for cleaner docks that have the added excitement of operating a real, three dimensional device while immersing in the augmented screen image.  Data gained from users playing the game will be fed back to ESA for analysis.

You see, it's not the game but the instinctive micro-corrections the users deploy that interest the ESA boffins.    This is an interesting way of tapping in to the collective skill-set of humans, to help with the automation of the devices in space.  It's low cost - in fact it's technically free to ESA as you provide your own Quadricopter - but it could be very effective.

At the moment Android devices appear to be left out  despite being on the Quadricopter controls list.  However Google may just turn the concept onto something useful closer to their hearts and to home.  If someone could develop an Android app to control bumper cars, then the data collated could be fed back into their self driving car project.

Or maybe not!


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