Dutch aeronautics firm Airbus is working with IBM to develop a free-floating AI-based assistant with a face and voice for Germany’s DLR Space Administration.

The assistant is named CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile Companion) and takes the form of a medicine ball with a screen that weighs 5kg and will be able to float alongside astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS). CIMON is intended to support astronauts in performing routine work, by displaying procedures on its screen, for example, and offer solutions to problems using its Watson AI technology from the IBM cloud.

“In short, CIMON will be the first AI-based mission and flight assistance system,” said Manfred Jaumann, head of microgravity payloads from Airbus. “We are the first company in Europe to carry a free flyer, a kind of flying brain, to the ISS and to develop artificial intelligence for the crew on board the space station.”

CIMON can respond to voice commands, and its AI was trained using voice samples and photos of European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst, who also had input on the selection of CIMON’s screen face and computer voice. It also has plans of the ISS loaded into its database.

In its first mission, CIMON will only be able to perform a ‘selected range’ of capabilities, but there are plans to use it to monitor the effects of long-term missions on astronauts aboard the ISS. Airbus says it expects the social bonds forged between humans and AI-powered machines could ‘play an important role in the success of long-term missions’.

CIMON is expected to launch with the 31st DLR parabolic flight campaign, which is scheduled to take off later this month.