The International Space Station just took delivery of a stash of new hardware — amongst it is this attractive robot that will make up part of the Robotic Refuelling Mission. Known as the Visual Inspection Poseable Invertebrate Robot (VIPIR), the Pixar-like robot will help astronauts look where they would otherwise be unable to see.
It joins an existing testbed of technology on the outside of the ISS, all designed to help refuel and repair satellites in orbit. NASA explains how it will help:
How VIPIR gets where it needs to go: Up to thirty-four inches of flexible tube allow VIPIR to extend and navigate its miniaturized camera through tight openings down to an inch in diameter. Need to take a peek at something above you or around the corner? Mission controllers can command the tip of the tube to rotate up to 90 degrees in four opposing directions.
How it captures data: At the end of the tube’s articulating tip is a tiny colour camera that measures a mere 1.2mm in diameter, making it one of the world’s tiniest cameras, and the smallest camera to ever be flown by NASA in space. Developed commercially, it is typically used by the medical industry for endoscopies and other similar procedures. NASA procured this Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) camera and then tested it extensively with custom electronics to screen it for potential failures that might arise in a space environment. Screening commercial hardware for spaceflight allows for rapid development.
Camera capabilities: The borescope camera’s small dimensions do not keep it from delivering an impressive image. It delivers back to Earth a ~100-degree field-of-view image with a 224 x 224 pixel (0.05 megapixel) resolution. While the number of pixels may sound small compared to today’s commercially available digital cameras, which have resolutions on the order of 20 megapixels, this capability is perfect for close-range inspection jobs when the camera is only one to two inches away from its intended target.
What it will be doing on orbit: RRM exists to test new technologies and capabilities in space. Held by Dextre robot, VIPIR will test its cameras’ capabilities by capturing images of satellite parts at various distances on the RRM module. The team will also send the VIPIR borescope camera through a special “decision box” that simulates an inspection activity a robot could perform. On-orbit results will help the team determine what type of camera system and operational techniques would be best suited for different tasks on potential future missions.