In Brief
A free-flying robot assistant named CIMON is heading to the International Space Station to help European astronaut Alex Gerst with his research.


In recent years many of us have begun to relying on Alexa, Siri, and other virtual assistants to play our music, set our alarms, and schedule our appointments. Now, the Airbus company is designing a similar mission assistant to help astronauts complete everyday tasks on the International Space Station.

Airbus is developing the Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN (nicknamed CIMON) in collaboration with Space Administration at the German Aerospace Center. It’s set to be the first time that artificial intelligence (AI) has been used on the ISS in this manner.

CIMON takes the form of a spherical, free-flying robot that can move independently around the station It’s about the size of a medicine ball, and weighs roughly 11 pounds.

The technology is set to take its test-run aboard the ISS in June 2018; it will assist astronaut Alexander Gerst during the European Space Agency’s Horizons Mission until October 2018. CIMON uses a modified version of IBM’s Watson AI, and has been taught to recognize Gerst’s voice and his appearance.

CIMON’s capabilities include displaying visual instructions for a particular procedure on screen, offering solutions to problems, and giving early warnings for technical issues.

While CIMON is designed to assist Gerst, the robot is an experiment in and of itself too. Gerst is set to collaborate with CIMON on three projects to test the assistant’s capabilities — in one experiment CIMON will serve as a flying camera during a complex medical task, and then astronaut and AI will solve a Rubik’s Cube together.

Airbus wants to use CIMON to investigate how the presence of an AI assistant affects social dynamics in a small group, according to a report by the MIT Technology Review. While CIMON could play an important role in future space travel or missions to Mars, Airbus hopes the assistant could serve a purpose on Earth too, working in hospitals and providing social care as a sophisticated Alexa alternative.