The robotic astronaut assistant named CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN) had its first day of work aboard the International Space Station (ISS) November 15, 2018, and it was a rousing success. Built and developed by Airbus on behalf of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), CIMON worked with German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst for 90 minutes in the station’s Columbus module.
The 3D-printed, 5-kg plastic sphere “is the first AI-based astronaut assistant—an experimental technology studying human-machine interaction in space,” according to Airbus.
When it came time for CIMON’s debut, the team at Switzerland’s ground control center first sent software updates to the ISS and CIMON, checked audio systems, and tested the navigation camera. Then, Gerst finally “met” his AI coworker.
“CIMON represents the realization of an Airbus vision. It is a huge step forward for human space flight, achieved by working in cooperation with our partners. With CIMON, we have laid the foundations for social assistance systems that are designed to be used under extreme conditions,” says Airbus’ CIMON Project Manager Till Eisenberg.
During the 90-minute session, several aspects of CIMON were put to the test.
- Autonomous Navigation: Performed movements in all directions.
- Ultrasonic Sensors: Tested functionality akin to a vehicle’s parking sensors.
- Integrated Cameras: Took photos and videos of Gerst.
- Assistance Capabilities: Displayed experiment instructions on crystallization, showed a video of a Rubik’s cube puzzle, and played a piece of music.
“It is an incredible feeling and absolutely fantastic to be able to experience CIMON actually seeing, hearing, understanding, and speaking. This first, real deployment in space has made aerospace history, and marks the start of what will hopefully be a long deployment on the ISS,” says Dr. Christian Karrasch, CIMON project manager at the DLR Space Agency.
How does the AI assistant work? Well, first it gets ahold of the space station’s WiFi for data transmission, “making use of satellite connections to ground stations to establish an internet connection with the IBM Cloud,” according to Airbus.
“If CIMON is asked a question or addressed, the Watson AI firstly converts this audio signal into text, which is understood, or interpreted, by the AI. IBM Watson not only understands content in context, it can also understand the intention behind it. The result is a tailored answer, which is converted into speech and then sent back to the ISS, enabling a natural, dynamic spoken dialogue,” says IBM project lead Matthias Biniok.
You can watch Gerst and CIMON, man and machine, working together in the video below.