Russia sends its first humanoid robot into space

Updated August 23, 2019

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HUMANOID robot Fedor.—AP
HUMANOID robot Fedor.—AP

MOSCOW: Russia on Thursday launched an unmanned rocket carrying a life-size humanoid robot that will spend 10 days learning to assist astronauts on the International Space Station.

Named Fedor, short for Final Experimental Demonstration Object Research, the robot is the first ever sent up by Russia.

Fedor blasted off in a Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft at 6:38am Moscow time (0338 GMT) from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Soyuz is set to dock with the space station on Saturday and stay till Sept 7.

Soyuz ships are normally manned on such trips, but on Thursday no humans are travelling in order to test a new emergency rescue system. Instead of cosmonauts, Fedor, also known as Skybot F850, was strapped into a specially adapted pilot’s seat, with a small Russian flag in hand.

The silvery anthropomorphic robot stands 5 foot 11 inches tall and weighs 160 kgs. Fedor has Instagram and Twitter accounts with posts saying it is learning new skills such as opening a bottle of water. In the station, it will trial those manual skills in very low gravity.

Fedor copies human movements, a key skill that allows it to remotely help astronauts or even people on Earth to carry out tasks while the humans are strapped into an exoskeleton.

On the website of one of the state backers of the project, the Foundation of Advanced Research Projects, Fedor is described as potentially useful on Earth for working in high radiation environments, demining and tricky rescue missions.

On board, the robot will perform tasks supervised by Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov, who joined the ISS in July and will wear an exoskeleton and augmented reality glasses in a series of experiments later this month.

Since Fedor is not trained to grab space station handles to move about in microgravity conditions, its legs will be immobilised on the space station.

Fedor is not the first robot to go into space. In 2011, NASA sent up Robonaut 2, a humanoid robot developed with General Motors that had a similar aim of working in high-risk environments. It was flown back to Earth in 2018 after experiencing technical problems.

In 2013, Japan sent up a small robot called Kirobo along with the ISS’s first Japanese space commander. Developed with Toyota, it was able to hold conversations — albeit only in Japanese.

Published in Dawn, August 23rd, 2019