NASA has had little flying robots called SPHERES on board the International Space Station since 2006. That’s closing in on a decade of successful operations, in that they’ve mostly behaved themselves and done everything that their astronaut masters have asked them to do. So that’s all well and good, but the idea (or one of the ideas) behind putting robots on the ISS was to get them to do useful things, ultimately freeing up the astronauts to look out the windows more often. And, you know, science.
Neither the little SPHERES robots nor Robonaut 2 have been able to contribute to inspection and basic maintenance tasks. NASA has just announced a contest to name a new, ISS-bound robotic system called the “Free Flying Robot,” which will be the next step towards robots that are useful in space.