Minimize ISS Utilization: CIMON

ISS Utilization: CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile companioN)

Background    Launch   References

CIMON is a mobile and autonomous assistance system designed to aid astronauts with their everyday tasks on the ISS (International Space Station). This will be the first form of AI (Artificial Intelligence) on an ISS mission. Airbus, in cooperation with IBM, developed CIMON, an AI-based assistant for astronauts for the DLR Space Administration. CIMON will be tested on the ISS by astronaut Alexander Gerst during the Horizons mission of ESA (European Space Agency) between June and October 2018. 1)

CIMON is able to see, hear, understand, speak – and fly. It is roughly spherical, has a diameter of 32 cm with a mass of 5 kg. Its robotic predecessor was Professor Simon Wright's 'flying brain', with sensors, cameras and a speech processor in the 1978 cartoon series, 'Captain Future'. Almost 40 years later, CIMON, the astronaut's flight attendant and assistance system, could turn science fiction into 'science fact'. 2)

From summer 2018 onwards, CIMON will become the new 'crew member' on the ISS, to demonstrate cooperation between humans and intelligent machines in the form of a technology experiment. The interactive astronaut assistant was developed and built by Airbus in Friedrichshafen and Bremen on behalf of DLR (German Aerospace Center) and funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie; BMWi). Watson AI (Artificial Intelligence) technology from the IBM Cloud provides voice-controlled artificial intelligence. The human aspects of the assistance system were co-developed and supervised by scientists at LMU (Ludwig-Maximilian University) Hospital in Munich (LMU Klinikum ). An approximately 50-strong DLR, Airbus, IBM and LMU project team has been working on implementing CIMON since August 2016. "CIMON is globally unique in this form," summarizes Christian Karrasch, CIMON Project Manager at the DLR Space Administration in Bonn. "We have implemented this experiment in a very short time. It is intended to show to what extent the astronauts' work can be supported in the European Columbus module on the ISS and relieve them, in particular, of routine tasks. Ideally, the astronauts could use their time better and more effectively. With CIMON, we are entering new territory and operating at the threshold of technological feasibility."


Figure 1: Photo of CIMON at the EAC (European Astronaut Center) in Cologne (image credit; DLR)

Microgravity in parabolic flight:

CIMON will enter microgravity on 9 March 2018 during the 31st DLR parabolic flight campaign in Bordeaux. In particular, orientation, navigation and steering will be tested, to ensure that it is optimally prepared for use on the ISS – in permanent microgravity. In June, CIMON will then travel to the ISS on board the US Space-X CRS-15 space transport mission, where it will be greeted by the German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst.

Following a functional test, the German astronaut will perform three experiments with his artificial colleague. On the agenda are experiments with crystals and a Rubik's cube, and a medical experiment in which CIMON will be used as a flying camera.

CIMON allows the astronaut to keep both hands free, with no need to manually operate a computer, for example. Thanks to this fully voice-controlled access to documents and media, the astronaut can conveniently navigate through operating and repair instructions and procedures for experiments and equipment. CIMON will thus serve as a complex database of all the necessary information for working on the ISS, and can also be used as a mobile camera for documentation purposes.

When making its space debut, however, the intelligent artificial assistant will not have all the capabilities envisaged by its developers: "In the introduction period, we want to concentrate on group effects that develop in small teams over a long period of time and can occur during long-term missions to the Moon and Mars. Social interaction between humans and machines, and between astronauts and emotionally intelligent flight attendants could play an important role in the success of these missions," explains Till Eisenberg, CIMON project lead at Airbus Friedrichshafen. The engineers are also interested in processing Big Data and data mining.

"The aim of the CIMON project is to examine the current capabilities of artificial intelligence in a complex environment such as the International Space Station, in order to provide the best possible support to people in such conditions," says Matthias Biniok, IBM's lead Watson architect in Germany, explaining their interest in the project. For example, CIMON uses Watson AI to process text, speech and images, find specific information and knowledge, and interpret moods and feelings. Biniok adds: "These skills can be individually trained and enhanced within the context of their respective application. Artificial intelligence also makes particular use of artificial neural networks." 3)

IBM Watson services run on the IBM Cloud, which provides a further advantage for users, in general, and for use on the ISS in particular: sensitive, proprietary data can remain where it is created, such as in the protected area of your own server or database. You don't need to upload it to an external cloud for it to be enriched with appropriate AI capabilities.

Scientific background:

CIMON also has a scientific background; its advisors are Judith-Irina Buchheim and Alexander Choukèr from the Department of Anesthesiology at the Ludwig-Maximilian University Hospital in Munich. During a variety of research projects, Buchheim and Choukèr are investigating the effects of stress on the human immune system. "We not only examine patients in intensive care units, but also people exposed to extreme stress and workload as a result of their environment, such as polar explorers in the Antarctic and astronauts on the International Space Station," reports Buchheim, adding: "Our studies show that being subjected to microgravity for a certain period can significantly affect the functioning of an astronaut's immune system. Stress is a major factor here." For example, strenuous tasks that are performed with a colleague are generally less arduous when people work well together. "As a partner and assistant, CIMON could support astronauts with their high workload of experiments and maintenance and repair work, thereby reducing their exposure to stress." According to Buchheim, possible applications on Earth are the support of engineers, researchers and doctors, AI-based enquiries about medical symptoms and everyday assistance for elderly people living alone.


CIMON the assistant:

CIMON's structure was built entirely using a 3D printing process, and is made of metal and plastic. Its 'face' is a display unit intended to hover at the astronaut's eye level. It can present and explain information and instructions for scientific experiments and repairs. Its 'eyes' are two cameras, and it also has an additional camera for face recognition. Two side cameras are used for video documentation and could also be used for additional computer-generated functions (augmented reality). Ultrasonic sensors measure distances for collision detection. Seven microphones act as 'ears' for detecting where sounds are originating, and there is a directional microphone for good voice recognition. Its 'mouth' is a loudspeaker that can be used to talk or play music. The core speech comprehension element of the AI is the IBM Watson system.

CIMON is unable to learn independently; a human must actively train it. The AI for autonomous navigation is provided by Airbus and used for motion planning and object recognition. CIMON can freely move and rotate in all spatial directions using 14 internal fans. It can therefore turn towards the astronaut when it is spoken to, nod and shake its head and follow the astronaut – autonomously or on command. In microgravity on the ISS, it can be used for two hours. The dimensions of CIMON's face are modelled on the proportions of a human face. Gestures and facial expressions are also possible, as is a female, male or neutral appearance and voice. CIMON's product design was implemented in collaboration with Reichert Design, a company from Stetten at the Bodensee (Lake Constance).

The Watson AI was trained using voice samples and photos of Alexander Gerst, and procedures and plans of the Columbus module of the International Space Station were loaded into the database. Alexander Gerst also had a say in the selection of CIMON's screen face and computer voice so that he, too, could ‘make friends' with his electronic colleague.

Once the functional testing of the system has been completed, Gerst will work in Space with CIMON a total of three times: They will experiment with crystals, work together to solve the Rubik's cube and perform a complex medical experiment using CIMON as an ‘intelligent' flying camera.

In its first Space mission, CIMON will only be equipped with a selected range of capabilities. In the medium term, aerospace researchers also plan to use the CIMON project to examine group effects that can develop over a long period of time in small teams and that may arise during long-term missions to the Moon or Mars. Social interaction between people and machines, between astronauts and assistance systems equipped with emotional intelligence, could play an important role in the success of long-term missions. Airbus' developers are convinced that, here on Earth, developments of the assistance system could also find future use in hospitals and social care.


Figure 2: Artist's view of one of CIMON's exercises on the ISS will involve a Rubik's Cube (image credit: Airbus)


Launch: The SpaceX CRS-15 (Commercial Resupply Services-15) Dragon logistics mission contracted by NASA is scheduled for 6 June 2018 on a Falcon-9 vehicle. The launch site is Cape Canaveral SCL-40. 4)

Orbit: Near-circular orbit of the ISS, altitude of ~400 km, inclination = 51.6º, period = 93 minutes.


1) "Airbus is developing the CIMON astronaut assistance system for the DLR Space Administration," Airbus Press Release, 26 February 2018, URL:

2) "CIMON - the intelligent astronaut assistant," DLR, 2 March 2018, URL:

3) Matthias Biniok, "Watson Hops On Board Human Space Flight," 26 Feb. 2018, URL:

4) US Commercial ELV launch manifest, 6 March 2018, URL:

The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (

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