Draper Developing Automated Astronaut Assistance


CHICAGO — On the International Space Station, a surprising amount of astronauts’ work is done manually, with little computerized assistance. Draper Laboratory and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute aim to change that with new software providing astronauts with automated alerts to guide their work.

“In many cases, the best way to do something in space is to combine automated systems with human supervisory input. This can work best if the astronaut has some feedback on how well the operation is going,” said Stephen Robinson, a former astronaut and current professor at the University of California, Davis.

With the “Methods and Metrics for Real-Time Task Performance Assessment” project, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Draper Laboratory plans to provide useful feedback in the form of software providing real-time monitoring and assistance to astronauts. This assistance will include familiar mechanical guidance, similar to a car’s parking assistance function, as well as physiological stress alerts which will tell astronauts when they need to take a break or pass a job off to a colleague.

While Draper’s software will not explicitly change the processes that astronauts use, it will, according to the project’s principal investigator Kevin Duda, “monitor their performance in real-time and make suggestions for improving performance to safely and efficiently complete their tasks.”

The alerts generated may include audio and visual signals, although the specific mechanisms and type of feedback they may provide are still undergoing development and testing in Robinson’s lab at the UC Davis.

Draper has a long history of working with NASA, contributing guidance, navigation, and docking software to the Apollo program, the space shuttle, and the ISS, as well as supporting development of Orbital ATK’s unmanned Cygnus cargo-carrying spacecraft.

This new endeavor, which is in the final year of a three-year, $1.2 million development contract, builds on those projects and Draper’s prior work on human systems technology. Its eventual goal is to provide spacecraft with automated alerts without requiring additional hardware or sensors and perhaps eventually apply the same software to more earthbound situations such as robotic surgery or self-driving cars.