CIMON Says: Design Lessons in Space
By Traci Browne and Paul Golata for Mouser Electronics
Of the more than 225 visitors to the International Space Station (ISS) in the past 20 years, June 2018 marked the first time one of those visitors was a free-flying, autonomous service robot. CIMON, or as it is more formally known, the Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN, is a 320mm in diameter, 5kg, a robotic brain that can speak, hear, see, and understand. CIMON is an artificial intelligence (AI) assistant in the form of a plastic spherical head with no body.
In fact, CIMON’s design was reportedly inspired by the Professor Simon Wright’s character (a flying brain) in the 1978 cartoon series, Captain Future. Much like the professor-aided Captain Future in the fictional world, CIMON was responsible for assisting astronaut Alexander Gerst (1976–) in the Columbus laboratory module in the ISS.
CIMON, developed and built by Airbus on behalf of the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt e.V., abbreviated DLR), was assigned to assist Gerst with three different tasks, making this service robot a collaborative robot as well. The three tasks involved solving a Rubik’s cube puzzle, conducting experiments with crystals, and carrying out a medical experiment which CIMON would film. CIMON could also serve as a complex database of all necessary information about operation and repair procedures for experiments and equipment on the ISS, allowing astronauts to have their hands free while working. If the crew wanted to capture video for documentation purposes, CIMON could handle that as well.
Designing for Microgravity
While the design may have been inspired by science fiction, the spherical shape has a more practical application in a microgravity environment (Figure 1). Till Eisenberg, project manager at Airbus Friedrichshafen, said that the primary challenge was to create a robot that would be accepted by the astronauts.
“Everything in the Space Station is rectangular, and it is a very technical environment. We wanted to have a calm point of focus,” said Eisenberg.
Figure 1: This is CIMON at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany. (Source: DLR/T. Bourry/ESA)
CIMON’s service as a calm point of focus, along with its ability to make the astronaut’s job more manageable, is important. Judith-Irina Buchheim, a medical researcher at the Ludwig-Maximilian University Hospital in Munich, thinks that the assistance CIMON provides astronauts will reduce their exposure to stress, which researchers believe has an impact on the human immune system. The simple, spherical shape contrasts to the boxy, technical environment of the ISS, but there are other advantages as well.
Because CIMON was the first free-flyer to operate on the ISS, safety was a significant concern. Typically, the rule for a microgravity environment is that everything must be strapped down to prevent objects from floating around and getting into things and places they should not. Eisenberg said that sharp edges or corners would be a hazard as it floats around the ISS bumping against walls, equipment, or the astronauts themselves.
Even if CIMON’s shape meant it would not hurt anyone, colliding with astronauts trying to work in an already-cramped space could quickly become annoying. To avoid that situation CIMON is equipped with 12 ultrasonic sensors that enable it to detect obstacles and be aware of incoming objects. These sensors measure the distance from the obstacle or astronaut to CIMON.
Fourteen internal fans allow CIMON to move and rotate in all spatial directions. While CIMON is on the move, a dual 3D camera sensor collects information about the depth and relation from one feature to another and builds a map based on Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) algorithms. A frontal video camera and face detection software would focus on the eyes of Gerst, allowing CIMON to orient itself to simulate eye-contact.
If Gerst wanted to get CIMON’s attention, when it was otherwise occupied, say looking out the window and enjoying the view, he could look in the robot’s direction and speak to CIMON. An array of microphones could detect the arrival direction of Gerst’s voice, and CIMON would orient himself until the speaker was in the field of view of the camera, at which point the eye gazing could happen.
For their final test, Eisenberg and CIMON boarded the Airbus A300 Zero-G for a parabolic flight test. Eisenberg described the flight as “a great experience” and “something everyone should do.” The plane flies up and down at 45° angles. The decent is where microgravity occurs, and this phase lasts about 20 seconds. A typical parabolic flight test will experience this about 30 times per flight.
Designing the Face and Voice
The ability to maintain eye contact and communicate are essential skills for an assistant, so the service bot needed a face. In CIMON’s case, the face is a simple line drawing displayed on a front-facing screen (Figure 2). As mentioned earlier, acceptance by the astronauts was one of the engineers’ primary challenges. The team invited Gerst to be a part of the design phase to ensure CIMON was an assistant with which the astronaut would work. Gerst was presented with several voices and faces to choose from, ensuring he would be happy with the result, while providing him with a sense of ownership and familiarity when he and the robot finally met on the ISS.
Figure 2: This is a composite image of CIMON on the ISS. (Source: DLR/T.Bourry/ESA)
An integral part of CIMON’s ability to assist astronauts is the IBM Watson AI system, which provides the core speech comprehension element. When someone speaks a language to a robot like CIMON with an AI system, the robot’s job is to identify intent. When a message arrives via audio stream, it then undergoes translation into written language so that the system can understand and interpret its meaning. Once the identification of intent is complete, the AI system generates an answer based on several keywords in one sentence.
Eisenberg said that the AI will always understand words that align with its training. That is why a system that is working fine with a small project group can react in an unexpected way when a new person tries to interact with it. Aware of this potential problem, the team had Gerst interact with the AI for two sessions. Not only did those sessions make the AI familiar with Gerst, but it acclimated him to working with AI. Much like aeronautic radio chatter, the crew on the ISS has created a specific way of talking, and they use keywords that have well-defined intentions, so CIMON should not have any trouble interacting with other crew members in the future.
Designing Interconnect Systems
CIMON depends on a great deal of space-grade connector and cabling technology to provide high-reliability operation in such an extreme environment. Space-grade interconnect technologies call for extensive qualification to meet high-performance standards established by governing authorities in order to ensure compliance where failure would lead to catastrophic damage or losses. Reliability is of utmost priority to ensure the success of the mission, so special materials are often warranted to ensure performance. While space itself is extremely cold, internal heating of components may exist that have limited conventional cooling, exposing connectors and cabling to potentially extremely wide and dynamically modulating temperature extremes. Small size and low mass are important to ensure that things fit into the limited available space and that mission objectives for overall payload size and space are maintained. Retention forces and mating connections must be ensured so that under extreme conditions connection failures are not realized.
Amphenol Aerospace is the world leader in designing, manufacturing, and supplying high-performance interconnect systems for military, commercial air, and industrial markets. Amphenol Aerospace 2M Micro-Miniature Connectors are designed for interconnect applications requiring high performance. These 2M Micro-Miniature Connectors are 71 percent lighter, 52 percent smaller, and have 60 percent more contact density than other connectors in their class. These micro-miniature connectors are designed and tested to Mil-Spec standards and comparable to MIL-DTL-38999 connectors. 2M Series connectors are intermateable and intermountable with existing micro-miniature aerospace/defense connectors. These lightweight, high-density connectors maximize SWaP (size, weight, and power) in a variety of high-reliability, harsh environments.
Outgassing (the release of gas that was dissolved, trapped, frozen, or absorbed in materials) is a concern in space because electronic components may be susceptible to released gasses and their resultant effects such as internal condensation, within environments that may be exposed to different atmospheric pressures that are experienced on earth. Additionally, extraordinary efforts are taken in the design to ensure that system performance integrity is maintained against harsh environments that include extreme shock, vibration, and physical torture and stress.
Harwin is a manufacturer of high reliability interconnects suitable for harsh environments that are able to withstand such extreme vibration, shock, and temperature. Products such as the Harwin Datamate Family Connectors feature high-reliability four-finger Beryllium Copper Contact Technology. Datamate Connectors ensure the integrity of connection without loss of data even under the most severe conditions by offering 100G shock, 40G bump, 10G vibration resistance, and are able to operate under temperatures as extreme as -55ºC to +125ºC.
Scientists are also hoping to use CIMON to observe the group effects that develop in small teams over extended periods of time, such as during extended missions to the moon and eventually Mars. They want to understand more about the social interaction between humans and machines as well. That interaction is significant because Eisenberg said that someday service robots, acting as flight attendants, could potentially play an essential role in those long missions.
All in all, CIMON is impressive for a robot created on a 3D printer and built with commercially available, off-the-shelf sensors, as well as space-grade connector and cabling technologies. Moreover, all this came about in less than two years. That timeline is impressive for just about any application, but for the space industry, it is epic.