CIMON the AI-based astronaut assistant gets working on the ISS

The first ever AI-based astronaut assistant – a 5kg free-flying plastic sphere called CIMON – has passed its first tests on the International Space Station with astronaut Alexander Gerst.

CIMON and astronaut Alexander Gerst

CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile CompanioN), developed and built by Airbus for the German Aerospace Center (DLR), worked with Gerst in the Columbus module of the ISS for around 90 minutes.

Gerst has been aboard the ISS since 8 June 2018 and his six-month horizons mission includes conducting tests with CIMON, a platform that could lead to similar machines that provide support to ISS crews.

“We are entering uncharted territory and pushing the boundaries of technological expertise in Germany,” said Dr Christian Karrasch, CIMON project manager at the DLR Space Agency.

Testing started in November 15, 2018, after software uploads to the ISS and CIMON itself. Following an audio check and a test of the navigation camera, Gerst came face to ‘face’ with CIMON, which was activated for the first time.

Bernd Rattenbacher, team leader at the ground control centre at Lucerne University, said: “The data link to Earth is established via satellite to NASA/ESA and to the DLR’s Columbus control centre in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany. From there, the signal is transmitted to us, the CIMON ground station at BIOTESC in Lucerne, the Swiss User Support and Operations Center, which is connected to the IBM Cloud in Frankfurt over the internet. The time needed for the signal to be transmitted via satellite is 0.4 seconds each way. A number of firewalls and VPN tunnels are in place to ensure data security.”

CIMON ground station team at BIOTESC, Lucerne

According to Airbus, CIMON’s autonomous navigation was then tested, seeing the assistant perform several turns and movements. It was able to search for Gerst’s face and make ‘eye’ contact. To demonstrate its assistance capabilities, CIMON displayed instructions for a school science experiment and a video of the Rubik’s cube puzzle on its ‘face’, a screen set in the centre of the sphere, and played a piece of music. It then tested its ultrasonic sensors and took a photo and shot a video of Gerst using its integrated cameras. Finally, Gerst returned his crew assistant to its place in the Columbus module.

“With CIMON, we have laid the foundations for social assistance systems that are designed to be used under extreme conditions,” said Till Eisenberg, CIMON Project Manager at Airbus.

CIMON uses the Wi-Fi on the ISS to transmit data, making use of satellite connections to ground stations to establish an internet connection with the IBM Cloud.

Floating crew member CIMON to bring AI to International Space Station

Matthias Biniok, IBM project lead, said: “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.”