A Floating Brain

Do you remember the animated AI named Gerty from the sci-fi cult hit Moon? Equipped with a display to relay its emotions, Gerty follows the main character around and helps keeps track of things and provide feedback on various actions. Well, reality looks set to catch up with science fiction this summer when the International Space Station (ISS) crew welcomes aboard CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile Companion), described as a “mobile and autonomous assistance system” and set to become the first "flying brain" in space this year. It is the product of a partnership between Airbus and IBM. In August 2016, the Bonn-based DLR Space Administration commissioned Airbus’ aerospace experts to carry out the project. Since then, a 50-strong project team comprising members from Airbus, DLR, IBM and the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich (LMU) has been working to ensure that CIMON takes shape and is brought to life.


CIMON is the size of a medicine ball and weighs around 5 kg. Airbus uses plastic and metal 3D printing to create the structure of the AI robot. Using Watson AI technology from the IBM cloud, CIMON will have a face, voice, and loads of artificial intelligence.



AI from the Cloud – proprietary data in a protected space

IBM Watson services run on the IBM Cloud, which provides a further advantage for users, in general, and for use on the ISS in particular: sensitive, proprietary data can remain where it is created, such as in the protected area of your own server or database. You don’t need to upload it to an external cloud for it to be enriched with appropriate AI capabilities.


The IBM model for data and privacy allows you to train your own AI models with Watson technology without having to integrate proprietary or sensitive data into a public model. No other company, no other organization – not even IBM – can use this data for the further development of AI applications. This ensures that users can keep their critical information private and proprietary. What’s more, a company’s intellectual property and data serve to enhance only its own competitive advantage. This was one of the main reasons why Airbus chose IBM as its partner to develop CIMON.


The talking robot, with a smiling face and an expansive vocabulary, will be a genuine "colleague" of the astronauts. The face, at least, reminds me a bit of Rethink Robotics' Baxter


Smart, Collaborative Robot Pioneer - Baster


For decades, manufacturers have had very few cost-effective options for low volume, high mix production jobs. Then came Baxter – the first safe, flexible, affordable alternative to fixed automation. Companies globally have integrated Baxter into their workforce, and gained a competitive advantage.


For decades, manufacturers have had very few cost-effective options for low volume, high mix production jobs. Then came Baxter – the first safe, flexible, affordable alternative to fixed automation. Companies globally have integrated Baxter into their workforce, and gained a competitive advantage.



Baxter is a proven industrial automation solution for a wide range of tasks – from line loading and machine tending, to packaging and material handling.

Safe, by Design - Baxter is safe next to people on a production line, without the need for caging – saving money and valuable floor space.


Trained, Not Programmed - Baxter, powered by Intera, is trained by demonstration using existing personnel, reducing time and cost.


Flexible & Re-deployable - Baxter is flexible for a range of applications and re-trainable across lines and tasks – it can be repurposed quickly across jobs.


Easily Integrated - Baxter deploys quickly and can connect to other automation in the work cell – often without third party integration.


Force Sensing - The patented technology in Baxter’s joints respond to force, allowing it to “feel” its way into fixtures.


Degrees of Freedom - With 7 DoF Baxter’s arms can maneuver much like a human’s arms, and reduce work cell reconfiguration.


Airbus said that CIMON will provide a checklist and other details when asked. It will also interact with the astronauts playing interactive exercises like solving Rubik’s cube and other tasks such as performing complex medical studies by working as a flying camera. It will diagnose the certain systems on ISS and warn the astronauts of any technical problem that may come about. It also used the Watson Visual Recognition service to learn the construction plans of the Columbus module on the International Space Station to be able to easily move around. CIMON also learned all the procedures to help carrying out the on-board experiments. Experiments sometimes consist of more than 100 different steps, CIMON knows them all. Most importantly, CIMON might be able to resolve the much greater problem for astronauts in the space i.e. psychological impact that isolation of space puts on the astronauts. Space agencies around the globe are trying to resolve psychological impact which could hinder with astronauts performance especially when the stay on ISS is of significant duration. CIMON will be able to act as a companion to the astronauts thereby helping them cope up with psychological stress.



CIMON is already "training" with an astronaut — Alexander Gerst, who represented the European Space Agency (ESA) on the ISS from May to November 2014. Gerst will return to the ISS, bringing CIMON along, from June to October 2018, on ESA's Horizons mission.

The CIMON robot will not be the first robot to travel aboard the ISS, with several other android astronauts making the trip into orbit 250 miles above the Earth. In 2011, NASA sent up Robonaut, a humanoid robot designed to perform simple tasks aboard the space station like cleaning handrails.


Several recurring issues with Robonaut means it has been largely out of action since 2015 and astronauts have packaged the robot up in order to return it to Earth for repairs. Another robot that has since returned to Earth is Kirobo, which assisted Japanese astronaut Wakata Koichi aboard the ISS until 2015


What makes CIMON stand out from previous robotic endeavours, its developers point out, is its advanced artificial intelligence capabilities that have not been implemented in robot form aboard the ISS before.


“In short, CIMON will be the first AI-based mission and flight assistance system,” said Manfred Jaumann, head of microgravity payloads at Airbus.


Airbus is also planning to study the machine's long-term interaction with astronauts to estimate how deep space missions to Mars and beyond would pan out would pan out with an intelligent robot onboard.


In the future, Airbus believes that this type of AI system can make an impact in hospitals and social care. For now, CIMON will focus on assisting astronauts with routines, and interacting with them on a social level. And, as long as the AI system doesn’t undergo some evil HAL 9000-like evolution, this intelligent robot should make life easier for those residing on the ISS.



Written by : Canhphuc Dao

Canhphuc Dao volunteered for Voyager Space Outreach to writer Blog Posts on STEM/Space Topics.

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