Find out how NASA tweaked the Nexus handset to control drones used in the International Space Station.
You could call them drones, or satellites -- NASA prefers the latter -- but these small flying robots that are being used on the International Space Station are powered by Nexus S smartphones.
Ars Technica has a lengthy writeup on how the space agency hacked smartphones to power its SPHERE (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) satellites after their original CPUs had become too slow for their needs. Modern handsets made sense since they have integrated cameras, sensors, Wi-Fi connectivity, and of course, a capable processor.
Some of the tweaks NASA had to make include turning off the radio permanently on the handsets, adapting the device to use AA batteries instead of the usual lithium ion, and getting the drivers and sensors to work properly in a zero-gravity environment.
The affordability of the Nexus S handset was cited as one of the reasons for choosing the device, while its removable battery feature allowed NASA to adapt the phone for space. The Intelligent Robotics Group responsible for the project is also said to be building newer versions of the SPHERE satellite using the Nexus 4 smartphone.