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Nanosats and Microbots
Jamais Cascio, 20 Jun 05

If building and flying a microbot over the countryside is exciting, imagine how much fun it would be to control one in orbit.

The Mini AERCam (Miniature Autonomous Extravehicular Robotic Camera) is a NASA-designed "nanosatellite" intended to be used by astronauts in orbit as a means of visually inspecting objects (including the underside of the space shuttle) and as an assistant during space walks. Measuring 7.5 inches in diameter and massing 10 pounds, it's not "nano" in the nanotechnology sense; it's much closer in form and function to a micro-sized "unmanned aerial vehicle." As with the micro-UAVs, it extends the functional reach of the users by providing views otherwise unattainable.

The Mini AERCam is currently outfitted only with cameras, although other types of sensors are not out of the question. This version doesn't have any sort of ability to manipulate objects; although the Mini AERCam website doesn't mention it, such a feature seems an obvious extension of the device's capabilities. Like micro-UAVs, the nanosat is capable of both remote operation and independent flight. As the system intelligence increases, greater autonomy is planned, culminating in future AER design being used as robotic assistants for astronauts. Presumably, the software supporting autonomous operation could eventually be applicable to Earthly microbots, as well.

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