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Airbus and IBM Developing a 3D Printed Robot Named CIMON to Support Astronauts on the ISS

ST Medical Devices

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A bomb disposal robot working to save human lives.

Robots, no matter if they’re big or small, soft or humanoid, have a prime purpose of helping humankind in some way, whether they’re teaching children about coding and robotics, working to repair cars and construct buildings, or assisting in surgery.

3D printing guru Hod Lipson believes that someday, robots will be everywhere in our lives, thanks to new artificial intelligence algorithms and advanced manufacturing technologies, such as 3D printing. Combining robotics with 3D printing has led to all sorts of innovations here on Earth, and even beyond into outer space.

Global aeronautics leader Airbus is no stranger to using 3D printing and robotics for aerospace purposes, and is currently working with IBM on an interesting new robotics project to support space flight crews. His name is CIMON, and he will join the ranks of WALL-E, HAL, and other famous robots in space.

Okay, so CIMON isn’t a person and therefore has no gender. CIMON, which stands for Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN, is an AI-based astronaut assistance system for the DLR Space Administration in Germany. It is a roly poly technology demonstrator, roughly the size of a medicine ball, and was designed to help astronauts perform routine work.

Manfred Jaumann, Head of Microgravity Payloads from Airbus, said, “In short, CIMON will be the first AI-based mission and flight assistance system. We are the first company in Europe to carry a free flyer, a kind of flying brain, to the ISS and to develop artificial intelligence for the crew on board the space station.”

CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN).

Jaumann also explained that the entire structure of CIMON, all 5 kg of it, was 3D printed out of both metal and plastic materials.

IBM’s Watson AI technology provides CIMON’s brain, which helps the 3D printed robotic ball seem like a real colleague aboard the International Space Station – it even has a face and a voice. CIMON helps astronauts in space perform their daily work – it can display procedures and even uses its AI network and ability to learn to come up with solutions to problems. It can help increase efficiency on board, and even improve security as an early warning system for any technical issues.

[Image: IBM]

But that’s not all CIMON can do – while the space robot will undoubtedly make work easier for the astronauts by helping with mundane tasks, it’s also an ambassador for human-robot interaction and cooperation, just like the Japanese Int-ball drone on the ISS. The astronauts aren’t just dealing with some machine, they’re engaging with an assistant.

The concept for an AI assistance system was first examined by Airbus in a self-financed study. In the summer of 2016, DLR then commissioned the company’s aerospace experts to bring the CIMON project to life. A 50-person team, with members from IBM, DLR, Airbus, and the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich (LMU), are working to bring CIMON to life. The team is teaching CIMON how to move and orient itself, recognize its human partners, and accumulate knowledge.

Alexander Gerst, ESA [Image: Alexander Gerst]

CIMON was trained using photos and voice samples of Alexander Gerst, with the European Space Agency (ESA); plans and procedures of the ISS Columbus module were also added to its database. Gerst got to help choose the robot’s computer voice and screen face, and will test CIMON out on the ISS himself during the upcoming ESA Horizons mission this summer.

Together, Gerst and CIMON will work together in space three times, once all of the system’s functional testing has been completed. They will work with crystals, solve a Rubik’s Cube, and perform a complex medical experiment; CIMON will be put to work as an ‘intelligent’ flying camera for this last project.

But before CIMON travels to the ISS, it could get a chance to experience space-like conditions as early as this month, during the 31st DLR parabolic flight campaign, which is centered on testing and optimizing Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC) algorithms under zero G conditions.

One of CIMON’s exercises on the ISS will involve a Rubik’s Cube.

CIMON will only have a select amount of capabilities for its first mission in space. But while the 3D printed robot is hard at work with Gerst on the ISS, aerospace researchers back home will use the CIMON project to investigate the group effects, positive and negative, that can develop within small teams over long periods of time – the kinds of issues that astronauts could deal with on long-term space missions.

It is of vital importance to the success of long-term space missions that people and machines – specifically astronauts and 3D printed robotic assistance systems with emotional intelligence like CIMON – are able to socially interact with each other. Looking to other applications for AI systems like CIMON, Airbus’ developers believe that they could prove useful in hospitals and social care settings as well.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at or share your thoughts below. 

[Images: Airbus, unless otherwise credited]


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