Tomorrow Russia will be sending a humanoid robot into space. The robot will be one of the passengers on a Soyuz capsule that will take the robot and other crew members to the International Space Station. Once there, the robot will perform certain tasks under the direction and supervision of a Russian cosmonaut.
There are some signs that the robot’s trip is a bit of a publicity stunt, with a whiff of the old “space race” about it. For one thing, the robot’s name was recently changed, from “Fedor” to “Skybot F-850.” For another, the Russians say the robot will occupy the commander’s seat on the Soyuz, rather than being carted up in the cargo compartment — although Soyuz being a capsule, there really isn’t a commander’s seat or much piloting going on. The robot also seems to be a kind of multi-purpose robot who is largely controlled through immersive teleoperation (i.e., controlled by a human) rather than fully autonomous.
As for the whiff of the old space race days, there’s a conscious effort to compare Skybot F-850 to an American robot called Robonaut-2 that worked at the International Space Station a few years ago and is ready to return. Robonaut-2, the Russians point out, was shipped to the ISS as part of the cargo rather than as a member of the crew. Good thing for Robonaut-2 that robots can’t feel embarrassment!
Even though the Russian effort seems to have a lot of publicity elements to it, I’m still glad to see a focus on moving forward with robotics in space. Astronauts are great, of course, but a lot of the hard work involved in tackling space is going to be done by robots who don’t have to worry about atmospheres or food. If a little taste of the space race will help to move the process along, I’m all for it.