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Russian Humanoid Robot to Pilot Soyuz Capsule to ISS This Week

Skybot F-850 will spend a week on the ISS charming astronauts with its sense of humor

3 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

Image of the humanoid robot, FEDOR, with researchers
Photo: Roscosmos

On Thursday, the Soyuz MS-14 will travel to the International Space Station and carry with it a Russian humanoid robot. The robot’s name used to be Fedor, and we last saw it shooting handguns in a demonstration to the Russian military, but now it shall be known as Skybot F-850 and it's going to space. 

Skybot F-850 will spend just over one week on the ISS, where it will “perform several tasks under the control of astronaut Alexander Skvortsov and will be able to communicate with the crew,” according to the Russian space agency Roscosmos. There isn't a lot of information about exactly what these tasks will be (beyond the vague “tests prepared by Russian engineers to assist astronauts inside the ISS”), but there is this amazing Russian music video featuring Skybot that was posted a few days ago by Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos:

It looks like the robot does have some amount of autonomy, but that immersive teleoperation is used for more complex tasks. There's nothing wrong with this approach, and it's the same one that GITAI has been using for the robotic system that it hopes will travel to the ISS one day.

Here are a couple of excerpts from a (Google-translated and gently edited) interview with Alexander Bloshenko, science adviser at Roscosmos, that provide a bit more detail about Skybot F-850:

From a technical point of view, is this really a robot, or is it a remote manipulator that looks like a person?

Skybot F-850 is a robot—it's an automatic device with predefined programming and elements of artificial intelligence. It can maintain its equilibrium, convert general movements into separate locomotor functions, and independently provide expert support of the crew. In addition, the robot can work in avatar mode, under the control of a remote operator.

It was reported that the robot will communicate with the astronauts, and comment on the flight status in the Soyuz spacecraft. What does Skybot talk about? Can it make jokes?

Skybot F-850 can communicate on any topic. Before launching the Soyuz, the robot will describe prelaunch preparations, and during the launch and flight he will report the flight parameters and observed events. As the spacecraft enters orbit, the robot will determine the onset of zero gravity.

Like a person, Skybot F-850 is very sociable and has a sense of humor. As I said, he can support any topic of conversation, answer a variety of questions: from making introductions, to talking about its creators, and ending with the philosophy of space.

There are a few other interesting details in the interview—we've learned that the robot runs off the same batteries as the Russian Orlan space suits, which is a very practical way of getting around the battery safety constraints on board the ISS, and that the next generation will apparently be able to operate in a vacuum.

Skybot will be the second humanoid robot to visit the ISS after Robonaut 2, which is all fixed up and ready to head back to the station as soon as space is available on a flight. Roscosmos seems to be well aware that people like us will be making this comparison, and the agency notes that Soyuz MS-14 “will be a unique flight, because for the first time the robot will sit in the seat of the ship's commander, and not in the cargo compartment, as [did] the American humanoid Robonaut-2 delivered to the International Space Station several years ago.”

This is technically true, I guess, although Roscosmos doesn't mention that the Soyuz MS-14 isn't designed to be piloted by a human at all, and in fact doesn't include a number of crew support systems. Really, MS-14 itself is one big cargo compartment, and we're not even sure that it's got seats in it, especially since this is how the robot had to be put into the capsule:

Image of the robot.Photo: FEDOR37516789/Twitter

And this is what it looks like inside:

Image of inside of capsulePhoto: FEDOR37516789/Twitter

In any case, we just hope that the result of this trip to orbit by Skybot is some tangible progress in space robotics rather than just a publicity stunt. Roscosmos does have some longer-term plans for Skybot F-850 if things go well, including “a draft of a full-fledged program for further work,” but first Skybot has to prove itself. And if it does, you can bet that Roscosmos will make sure we know about it.

[ Roscosmos ]

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