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NASA Got Hackers to Design a Zero G Drone for Space

It floats, walks, and grabs onto surfaces with little drone hands.
Screengrab: YouTube

Around the world, drones are being hacked every day to help people in new ways, from rescuing people stranded by a flood to fighting back against deforestation. We're making drones do so much more than just shoot really picturesque porn.

But we've yet to really find a way to optimize drones for use outside of our own atmosphere, which is why NASA recently tasked hackers and engineers with designing a drone that would be able to function in a zero gravity environment.

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It was one of many challenges presented at the fourth annual SpaceApps challenge: a global hackathon that calls on creative minds to put the mountains of data NASA collects every day to use, attempting to solve problems around the world and beyond.

One of the winners of this year's challenge took on the issue of a zero G drone and came up with a design for a docking, flying, twirling, walking robot capable of helping out astronauts with a variety of tasks on board the ISS or on longer space flight journeys. Meet Arachnobeea:

One of the hurdles with designing a zero gravity drone is helping it to orient itself while floating around the inside of a spacecraft. To overcome this, the Arachnobeea team concocted a system of sensors that could be placed around the space station. When the Arachnobeea floats or crawls near a sensor, it immediately can determine where it is.

Another problem is how to get the drone to stop moving. Anyone who has watched footage from space knows if an object isn't being controlled, and isn't strapped down, it will float around aimlessly. That makes it difficult for a drone to slow down and pick up a tool to deliver to a busy astronaut. But the team designed the Arachnobeea to have little limbs with "hands" it can use to grab and "dock" to different surfaces while it completes a needed task. It's also equipped with small vacuums, so it can suck itself into a specific point.

The Arachnobeea project largely built off of the lessons learned through NASA's SPHERES project: three experimental, free-flying satellites that have been onboard the ISS since 2003. The satellites are brightly colored, roughly the size and shape of a bowling ball, and are used to test different drone and robotic technology in zero gravity. They move around the space station using CO2 thrusters and orient themselves using built-in ultrasound beacons, accelerometers, and gyroscopes.

Astronaut Scott Kelly playing with the SPHERES on the ISS. Image: NASA/ISS

The Arachnobeea is just a design at this point, but the fact that NASA chose it as the "Best Mission Concept" award winner this year (and the fact that it posed the zero-g drone challenge in the first place) is a good indicator that the space agency is eager for this kind of technology. When we do finally send a manned mission to Mars, we most likely won't be sending them without some kind of drone assistants. Flying R2D2 anyone?