Alan the Astro Aide – Digital Assistant for Astronauts

Alan the Astro Aide – Digital Assistant for Astronauts

In the summer semester 2019, the University Bremen, namely speaking Denis Pijetlovic of the department of economics, specialization in Sustainable Management led by Prof. Dr. Georg Müller-Christ, approached Blackout Technologies about an unique opportunity in the curriculum for business students.

Denis Pijetlovic asked Blackout Technologies if we were interested in helping him give business students, without any IT courses or programming background, the opportunity to learn about AI and social robotics.

Usually Blackout Technologies is not approached by IT departments or companies, but by “normal” managers, recruiters, .. since they are the ones that have the pain points of repetitive requests etc. and see the most opportunities by using AI- and Chatbot-Technology. Since Blackout Technologies’ btNexus solution is specifically designed for Non-IT-personell it made total sense for us to enable these soon to be managers to learn about those technologies already now. So of course we joined forces, Blackout provided the server space and btNexus licenses as well as modeling support for the whole semester.

The students formed 10 groups, each supported by an industry/business partner to give them real-life insights and a “problem” to solve. More about the groups and what they were working on is described in Denis Pijetlovics’ article about the Digital Assistant Conference (article in German) where all students were presenting their results.

The student groups had 2-3 months to work out the biggest issues that their business partners presented them and come up with a strategy how a Digital Assistant can be of most value to solve this “problem”.

Since the whole team of Blackout Technologies was thrilled by what the students did, we want to take the time and present each of the groups and their results in a series of article posts, starting with the first group that presented their results on the 17.07.2019, the “Alan the Astro Aide”-group.

Students of the University Bremen present Alan the Astro Aide (Michel Bellmann, Jana Ellmers, Kara Engert, Feline Grube, 17.07.2019)
Picture 1: Students of the University Bremen present Alan the Astro Aide (Michel Bellmann, Jana Ellmers, Kara Engert, Feline Grube, 17.07.2019)


Alan the Astro Aide, inspired by Alan Shepard, the first American to travel into space and walk on the moon in 1971, is a Digital Assistant to support Astronauts with support requests during their stay in space.

This project was accompanied by the OHB System AG. OHB provided a use case to the students which was an actual case in 2010 where an astronaut was in need to technical support.

Currently this process is as following:

  1. The astronaut detects and issue
  2. He/She contacts the ground station
  3. The ground station asks for the main symptoms
  4. The Astronaut gives them a quick rundown
  5. The ground station starts to manually go through the manuals to find the correct use case and the procedure
  6. The ground station gives the instructions to the Astronaut

Biggest issues in this procedure are:

  1. There is a communication delay to the space station (data packages that transport voice or text take up to 30 seconds at the moment to the ISS, exponentially more the father away)
  2. There is a loss in sound quality of the transmission and sometimes the ground station or the astronaut don’t understand each other very well
  3. Depending on the position of the space station in regard to the earth and their solar panels it can happen that communication is not possible for slots of over 30 minutes in which the Astronaut can not make headway in solving the issue
  4. The ground station staff has to work through a lot of manuals manually which over and over again takes a lot of time

“One man cannot summon the future. But one man can change the present! ” Alternate Mr. Spock, “Mirror, Mirror”

The idea:

  1. Provide the astronauts with a Digital Assistant who is trained in everything or at least the most common issues.
  2. This Digital Assistant is available to the astronauts via text or voice on a tablet
  3. The tablet can be attached to the suits of the astronauts, to they have it at hand if necessary

With the Digital Assistant being “on board” of the space station there would be no more delays in the answer, no more sound issues, no more manually going through the manuals, so all of the current issues can be solved.

The OHB student group developed Alan, who is able to solve the use case that OHB was presented with in 2010 (see Picture 2).

Alan the Astro Aide Use Case (Michel Bellmann, Jana Ellmers, Kara Engert, Feline Grube, 17.07.2019)
Picture 2: Alan the Astro Aide Use Case (Michel Bellmann, Jana Ellmers, Kara Engert, Feline Grube, 17.07.2019)

The OHB-group started with a little disadvantage, given that they had to switch business partners in the beginning of their project. This meant they had even less time than the rest of their class. Anyhow, they did not get discouraged by it, as you can impressively see in Picture 2. Since they had to solve a use case that is a procedure, they decided to structure they Knowledge in reusable intents, such as “agreeing”, “disagreeing”, “blinking lights” etc. which can be used in many different tech support scenarios. They then structured these intents in follow ups to have use case specific answers, such as “Check the DMS Status LED at the FSP. Which color is it?”

They also prepared exits for a) successful problem solving, b) failed attempt at solving the problem, and c) exit to the ground station for further support.

Conclusion: From our point of view a big “Well done, OHB-group!” – You used all of the features of the btNexus, including the proper use of entities, follow-ups, hyper references, pictures and buttons to form a well thought-through dialog. If we were astronauts, we’d love to have a chat with Alan!

We really hope this project gets continued and that Alan is soon flying in space with human kind!