Smartphone app turns drones into spacecraft for simulated space station dockings

A free ESA app released today turns a popular iPhone-controlled ‘home drone’ into a spacecraft. The augmented reality game lets owners of Parrot AR.Drone quadcopters attempt dockings with a simulated International Space Station while flying their drones for real – in the process helping to improve robotic rendezvous methods.

This new AstroDrone app is part of a scientific crowdsourcing project by ESA’s Advanced Concepts Team, gathering data to teach robots to navigate their environments.

“For ESA, this development opens up completely new ways of involving the public in scientific experiments,” noted Leopold Summerer, head of the Advanced Concepts Team. “We can obtain real-life data to train our algorithms in large amounts that would practically be impossible to get in any other way.

The AR.Drone is one example: around half a million have been sold since their introduction by France’s Parrot company in 2010. Equipped with two cameras, the midget drone flies on four rotors and can be steered by iPhone or any other iOS device.

“We wanted to carry out robotic crowdsourcing, which meant selecting a robot that the public actually possesses in large numbers,” added Guido. “This is indeed a robot that people have at home and play games with, with the imaging capabilities we need.”

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