Microsoft, HPE put AI to work checking astronaut gloves

I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid you can't go out dressed like that

Video From the department of "we've got this supercomputer on the space station, what shall we do with it?" comes news of AI technology being used to check the gloves of spacewalkers.

Wear and tear is a problem for astronauts venturing out of the orbiting lab, and while helmets filling with water may have garnered all the headlines, decades of grabbing for handrails and maneuvering equipment takes its toll on gloves.

The gloves have five layers – a rubberized coating, followed by a cut-resistant material called Vectran then three further layers to keep the person inside at just the right temperature and pressure. Problems come when wear reaches the Vectran layer, for beyond that lies the pressure bladder and a bit further, the squishy human.

Since, by their nature, the gloves get quite a bit of use, NASA insists astronauts take photos of their gloves and send them back to Earth for inspection prior to reuse. While this is all very well on the ISS, doing something similar on (or in orbit around) Mars, or when communication is constrained, is less than ideal.

Enter AI and HPE's Spaceborne Computer-2 that is purring away onboard the ISS. Microsoft and NASA used shots of gloves ranging from shiny and new through to somewhat battered to tag types of wear to train the system. The magic was done using Azure Cognitive Services Custom Vision with NASA engineers highlighting specific damage types.

The result was a model able to give a probability score for damage. Gloves are removed following a spacewalk and the images fed into the Glove Analyzer model running on the HPE kit. If any damage is detected, NASA engineers are alerted.

There's a video, embedded below, from Microsoft that illustrates the process.

Youtube Video

It is worth noting that the tech is very much at a trial stage, and spacewalkers are not about to take the word of the model for granted when it comes to safety-critical matters. However, it is a concrete demonstration of the usefulness of AI and the hardware to run it when one is far away from the computing power that cloud Earth-dwellers take for granted.

HPE is by no means the only game on the ISS. While not quite in the same league as the mighty Spaceborne Computer-2, the Astro Pi project recently received a hardware boost of its own, with a pair of new Raspberry Pi 4 Model B computers and the Coral USB Accelerator, an Edge TPU co-processor connected via USB.

Not quite as exotic of HPE's kit, but something a bit easier for students to get their hands on via the Astro Pi program. ®

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