Microsoft uses AI-based projects to improve the safety of astronauts

Microsoft uses AI-based projects to improve the safety of astronauts

NASA used Azure Cognitive Services to tag wear and tear on photographs of gloves

A glove monitoring system is being trialled onboard the International Space Station

Elly Yates-Roberts |

Microsoft is working with NASA scientists and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) engineers to develop and trial an onboard glove monitor system that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and HPE’s Spaceborne Computer-2 to analyse whether astronauts’ gloves need repairing.

Astronaut’s gloves have five layers, including rubberised coating, cut-resistant material called Vectran and three further layers that maintain the spacesuit’s pressure against extreme temperatures and enclose oxygen. Damage to gloves can be caused by gripping objects and colliding rock particles, which are as sharp as broken glass due to the conditions on the moon and Mars. However, once the Vectran layer begins to wear, severe problems can occur, such as damage to the pressure bladder for the suit.

Currently, astronauts send photos of their spacesuit gloves to ground control for inspection, but now space travel is increasing, NASA aims to reduce astronauts’ reliance on connectivity to Earth. NASA used Azure Cognitive Services’ Custom Vision to tag specific types of wear and tear on photographs of both damaged and undamaged gloves. This data and the results with previous damage report images have been used to train a Microsoft Azure cloud-based AI system to enable it to quickly detect issues.

Astronauts are now taking pictures of their gloves immediately after completing a spacewalk and they are sent to HPE’s Spaceborne Computer-2 onboard the International Space Station (ISS), where the Glove Analyzer model searches for signs of damage live in space. If any damage is detected, a message is immediately sent to Earth, allowing NASA engineers to consult for further review.

“What we demonstrated is that we can perform AI and edge processing on the ISS and analyse gloves in real time,” said Ryan Campbell, senior software engineer at Microsoft Azure Space. “Because we’re literally next to the astronaut when we’re processing, we can run our tests faster than the images can be sent to the ground.”

The HPE Spaceborne Computer-2 can perform more than two trillion calculations per second.

Furthermore, Microsoft HoloLens 2 could potentially help astronauts visually scan for glove damage and eventually facilitate assisted repairs on complicated machinery.

“One of NASA’s missions is to explore, discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity,” said Jennifer Ott, data and AI specialist at Microsoft. “This project hits upon all of that, and it’s just a starting point. Bringing cloud computing power to the ultimate edge through projects like this allows us to think about and prepare for what we can safely do next – as we expect longer-range human spaceflights in the future and as we collectively begin pushing that edge further out.”

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