In April 2021, Bumble, one of the free-flying Astrobee robots aboard the International Space Station, was put to the test to investigate a simulated anomaly. In the simulation, the station’s life support systems detected a high concentration of carbon dioxide. A similar situation in reality could be very dangerous for the seven people who are living and working aboard the microgravity laboratory.
During the test, the small, cube-shaped robot adeptly navigated the station to find the location designated as a “vent” used for cabin air circulation, and used computer vision to automatically detect the foreign object blocking the vent – an “astronaut sock,” represented by a printed image of a sock. Then, Bumble called for help to clear the blockage. For its next test, Bumble completed a survey of Bay 6 of the space station’s Japanese Exploration Module, building a high-resolution multi-sensor 3D map. During this journey, Bumble found itself bumping into and untangling itself from stray cables, and coping with simulated space-to-ground communication interruptions. It ultimately persevered and completed its mission objectives, with a little timely help from ground operators.
This simulated fault scenario marked the end of the first phase of testing for software designed to enable autonomous operations of a spacecraft’s operating and robotic systems. The software’s name is ISAAC – the Integrated System for Autonomous and Adaptive Caretaking.
“ISAAC is far more than just a management tool for our robotics and spacecraft systems,” said Trey Smith, the project manager for ISAAC at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “Our long-term vision is that it can transform a spacecraft into an autonomous robotic system itself.”
NASA’s future Artemis missions to the Moon and beyond will take humans farther than they ever have before – and a host of robotic and mechanical systems will go with them. On the space station, much closer to home, astronauts have been able to stay full time, surpassing 20 years of continuous human presence – something that won’t be possible in deep space for some time. How can future spacecraft operate smoothly without that consistent human touch? ISAAC aims to deliver technologies to enable remote and autonomous caretaking during long periods of time when the astronauts are not aboard to perform maintenance, logistics management, and utilization tasks, as well as when communication with ground controllers is limited or simply unavailable.
NASA’s future missions will venture farther and farther away from Earth. This means some spacecraft and stations, like the agency’s Gateway outpost, will not be continuously crewed as the space station is. Gateway, which will orbit near the Moon and be a model for future missions to Mars, may only host a human crew six weeks out of a year but will still need to be maintained year-round.
The series of demonstrations NASA conducted with ISAAC on the space station this spring that culminated with Bumble’s journey used both the station’s systems and robotics to autonomously work through potential scenarios in which NASA may want to use ISAAC on future stations. The latest demo was the final milestone of ISAAC’s first phase of testing, with more to follow in the future, ultimately bringing this technology to a place where it can be used for future deep space missions.
The ISAAC team is now engaged in its second phase of testing aboard the station, which focuses on managing multiple robots as they transport cargo between an uncrewed space station and an uncrewed visiting cargo spacecraft. In addition to testing ISAAC with these new variables, the team is adding an improved operator interface to simplify managing the vehicle-robot systems. In the third and final phase of testing, the team will throw even more difficult fault scenarios at ISAAC, such as mock cabin air leaks or fires, and develop robust techniques to respond to anomalies that occur when responding to these simulated crises.
Life today on the space station is one of near-constant communication – between astronauts, robots like the free-flying Astrobees, station systems, science teams on Earth, and more. Human controllers on Earth manage many of these complex schedules and systems, but in the future, when NASA travels to further destinations where humans won’t always be around, that’s going to change.
“ISAAC is a key to making a station like Gateway work,” said Smith. “The farther we go out into space, the smarter our spacecraft and robotics systems will need to be. We’re hoping ISAAC will be an assistant to future astronauts, even when they’re not there.”
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