Outer space is unfriendly to humans. We can only exist in a contained environment with its own air supply, so that means working in very close quarters. Zero gravity means things don’t stay where you put them. Despite these constraints, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) must be highly productive on a very tight time schedule.

They conduct hundreds of experiments they’ve memorized and trained for on the ground, but now in zero-gravity. For example, they research disease treatments or how technology designed for space can improve our life on earth. The scientists who design these experiments can’t all be on the space station, so the astronaut becomes their arms and eyes and brains to conduct the work.

At Airbus, we saw how stressful human spaceflight could be on the crew. There are usually five or six people in a small compartment, and many tasks to complete. They move from one task to the next very quickly, and then pick back up on an incomplete task later. We thought that it was time to give the astronauts an assistant. Technology has come far enough that we believed an AI-powered companion could accompany a crew and help them achieve mission success.

CIMON–the AI-powered crew companion

So Airbus reached out to IBM, whose IBM Watson AI technology could be trained on any number of experiments and scientific areas, and to the German Aerospace Center, which provides funding by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) and support for innovative space exploration projects.

Together, Airbus, the German Aerospace Center DLR and IBM launched the technology-demonstration Project CIMON—Crew Interactive Mobile Companion—the first AI-powered robot in space. CIMON is a free-floating, sphere-shaped interactive companion that can assist the astronauts in their daily work. CIMON, created using 3D printing technology, weighs approximately 11 pounds (5 kilograms), and has a screen that displays a face with human-like expressions as the astronauts communicate with it.

CIMON can be trained on the tasks and experiments of a mission and responds to voice questions or directions without the need for a tablet or computer, which leaves the astronaut’s hands free to conduct experiments without pausing to type or search. CIMON can also help an astronaut resume a paused task, remembering exactly where they left off. Because the crew knows that they can ask for assistance and receive an answer quickly. In the future, CIMON could help increasing crew productivity while reducing stress.

CIMON says: let’s get this off the ground quickly!

CIMON not only provides fast answers, the timeframe from its conception to deployment on the ISS took only about two years. At German Aerospace Center DLR, we’re used to things in the space business taking at least three to 10 years or even more. The expertise and background knowledge of both IBM and Airbus made the CIMON project happen at an unimaginable speed. Their agility and professionalism, combined with their pioneer-spirit passion, were the driving force for Project CIMON to be realized quickly and successfully.

That’s one reason why, when CIMON went to space in 2018, we didn’t install a complete cloud service on the ISS. Instead, we on the robust, fast IBM Cloud on the ground—taking on the challenge of data connection between earth and space. We shrank an 8-10 seconds communications to 1-2 seconds by using satellite-based data connection, optimization of the CIMON software architecture and the end-to-end connectivity of the cloud.

Looking to future, CIMON makes history in space

Now, Airbus, German Aerospace Center DLR and IBM are preparing for the future of spaceflight with CIMON. We’re using the ISS as the testbed to prove the concept and technologies for an AI robot that could be used on deep space missions. We’re already preparing for missions where we’ll send humans to Mars and beyond.

Once we reach that point, communicating with and getting answers from the ground becomes problematic; it could take 30 minutes to get an answer to a simple question just because of distance. That’s where we think an AI-powered assistant running on an on-board cloud server could support these future missions. A trained CIMON could communicate quickly and reliably even in deep space far away from Earth.

When we tested CIMON on the ISS in 2018, we made space history and we’re very proud that we did this as a team. It’s great to work on something which sometimes seems a little bit close to science fiction.

Learn more about how Airbus and the German Aerospace Center are putting CIMON, the AI robot powered by IBM Watson, into space by watching the below video interviews with Till Eisenberg and Christian Karrasch:

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