An artificial intelligence-imbued assistant has been tested aboard the International Space Station.

The free-flying, spherical technology demonstrator with AI showed off a number of its features during interactions with ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano.

CIMON-2 is an updated version of the Crew Interactive MObile companioN astronaut. The degree of autonomy of the battery-powered assistant has been increased by around 30% contrasted to CIMON-1.

The prototype of the technology experiment flew on board the ISS in a July 2018 to August 2019 time period, making its 90-minute debut – a world first – on November 15, 2018 with German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst. 

German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst with CIMON prototype.
Credit: ESA/NASA

CIMON-2 was a payload on the CRS-19 supply mission to ISS back in early December 2019. It is scheduled to stay on the orbiting outpost for up to three years.

Taking inventory

Developed and built in Germany, CIMON is a technology experiment to support astronauts and increase the efficiency of their work. CIMON is able to show and explain information and instructions for scientific experiments and repairs.

The voice-controlled access to documents and media is an advantage, as the astronauts can keep both hands free. It can also be used as a mobile camera to save astronaut crew time.

In particular, CIMON could be used to perform routine tasks, such as documenting experiments, searching for objects and taking inventory.

ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano works with CIMON-2 aboard the International Space Station.
Credit: ESA/NASA

CIMON says

CIMON can also see, hear, understand and speak. CIMON is able to orientate itself using its ‘eyes’ – a stereo camera and a high-resolution camera that it uses for facial recognition – as well as two other cameras fitted to its sides that it uses for photos and video documentation.

Utilizing navigation capabilities, CIMON-2 was able to follow verbal commands to move to a particular location, regardless of where it was to begin with.

Additionally, ISS crew members can activate a feature on CIMON-2 that allows it to analyze emotion in language and show empathy when interacting with the astronauts.

CIMON lays the foundations for social assistance systems that could reduce stress resulting from isolation or group dynamics during long-term missions. Such systems could also possibly help to minimize similar problems back on Earth as well.

Earth orbiting research lab – the International Space Station (ISS).
Credit: NASA

Captain future

The interactive astronaut assistant CIMON was developed and built by Airbus in Friedrichshafen and Bremen on behalf of the German Aerospace Center Space Administration (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt – DLR) and funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.

Watson AI technology from IBM Cloud provides voice-controlled artificial intelligence. Scientists from the Ludwig-Maximilian University Hospital in Munich (LMU) helped develop and oversee the human aspects of the assistance system. Biotesc at the University of Lucerne were also engaged to make sure that CIMON works perfectly in the Columbus module of the ISS and supports interaction of astronauts with CIMON.

According to an Airbus statement, it is no coincidence that CIMON’s name is reminiscent of “Professor Simon Wright — a human brain living in a transparent, nuclear-powered life support case, with tentacle-mounted optics — or the “flying brain” – from the Japanese science fiction series Captain Future.

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