The Belgian specialist in space Space Applications has installed, in collaboration with LG, a smartphone as a tool onboard the International Space Shuttle ISS. “Astronauts are more mobile if they can read their instructions on the screen of a smartphone.”
The Space Applications name will probably not tell you much, and that’s a shame because the Belgian specialist in space develops ultra-points technologies in close collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) and its American counterpart The NASA. Robotics, space shuttle software, conceptual future such projects, human-machine interaction are all areas among others on which leans company Zaventem.
One project that was entrusted Space Applications by ESA and the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) concerns the development of collaborative tools to facilitate the work of astronauts. Surprising the fact that astronauts spend much of their time conducting scientific experiments. To carry out these missions, astronauts receive instructions and are required to follow certain procedures.
For years, these books are provided as standard ODF (Operations Data File), which allows to avoid confusion and allow spacemen to properly understand instructions. Initially these files to ODF astronauts were available on paper, with the inconvenience of transporting and handling complete constructions. But in the 90s, the laptop has made its appearance, making them more mobile instructions. And today it is the turn of smartphones and other wearables used to easily transmit the instructions.
“As part of the Mobile Viewer or MobiPV Procedure project, we studied how to present the ODF procedures on new types of devices, because if the laptops are certainly mobile, it is not practical to carry around such computers when one moves into a space shuttle, “said Keshav Chintamani, project manager for Space Applications.
The smartphone to the smartwatch
The WEAR system is one of the innovations already tested. These futuristic glasses Hololens type that have the astronaut instructions in augmented reality. Suppose you remove 4 screws in a certain place: augmented reality layer shows you where the screws in question are located. Belgian Frank De Winne has already tested this system when he was aboard the ISS.
Another device being tested is the smartphone, but not associated with a camera or Google Glass glasses. In the configuration tested in September 2015 Procedure for Mobile Viewer, the smartphone had been transformed into an intelligent super-watch that was used as a central server ‘collecting all data, whether it’s ODF instructions ( transmitted from a laptop in the ISS via Wi-Fi to the smartphone screen) and video images from the camera installed on the front of the astronaut.
The device selected by Space Applications for the test was developed by LG Nexus 5 and Google. The Nexus 5 is not the first smarphone to travel in space (it was the Samsung Galaxy Nexus S), but the first device to be used in concrete research purposes. “We knew that the Nexus 5 should be, if only because it is hackable, smiled Chintamani. This is important insofar as it is necessary to make it do things that other smartphones can do, as connect an external camera. ”
The advantage of Nexus is to turn a stock version of Android without manufacturer’s specific layer. In doing so, a company like Space Applications can easily be appropriated because the phone is much more ‘open’.
Before the Nexus 5 can be embedded in space, however, he had to find absolute answers to some key specifications defined by ESA. “Thus, a glass screen is not allowed on board a space station because if it breaks, it explodes and billions of glass particles are dispersed in areas of life and work of astronauts.”
Another problem is that of radio frequencies. 3G, GSM, Bluetooth: the frequencies on which these standards can interfere with resort amenities and should be excluded.
“A third issue was the battery, adds Jeroen Peeters LG Belgium. There is a risk that the lithium-ion batteries explode into space, which is clearly not acceptable.” The security officials ESA have therefore required to test 20 batteries of the same batch of Nexus 5. In this lot, 3 were randomly selected and subjected to the test (to be placed in a oven) to check whether they could resist and not explode.
“I had to contact the R & D in Korea asking for very specific information, says Peeters. Especially how the batteries are built, the number of cells they contain and the components used in their manufacture. My own employer thought I indulged in espionage (laughter). ”
When the value of the contract began to be known at LG, Jeroen has indeed received the requested information. And when we learned that the 3G and GSM could be blocked by placing the device in airplane mode and a Teflon layer could be placed on the screen of the Nexus 5, the unit was finally ‘approved ‘by the ISS. “Recharging the battery has also been a problem, even notes Chintamani. For if the power supply was provided in the shuttle, we had yet proven by different tests that the phone does not overload the fuses while reloading it which would have been catastrophic. ”
In the end, the Space Applications team receives 1 hour to test its draft Nexus 5 in September. “As expected, the device was used during this test to view the proceedings and to communicate, where appropriate via the connected camera. Everything was done from a simple Android app that can also rotate on a Unix system. How communication is established with the Earth? the central laptop in the ISS which is connected with the Nexus 5 communicates with a computer at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, explains the team leader. the communication itself is through the TDRSS system of NASA, a system of military satellites that supports wireless communication with TCP / IP. ”
The smartphone used for the test was a MoviPV device sold commercially. “We want to see how it was possible to use a conventional commercial product. In fact, the astronauts also need a good usability and a flawless user experience. These are areas where major investments. We wanted to leave the unit as it is. “