Russian humanoid robot goes to space

The artificially intelligent machine is designed to save lives, but may have other applications.   

Russia''s space robot Fedor (now called Skyboy F-850). Image: Roscosmos
Russia's space robot FEDOR, which is now called Skybot F-850, will rocket to the International Space Station on Wednesday [Courtesy: Roscosmos]

If Hollywood yearned to produce a movie about the growing pains of an early Terminator prototype, Russia‘s FEDOR would definitely land the lead role. Director James Cameron will have to wait. This anthropomorphic android is first going into space.

FEDOR, which stands for Final Experimental Demonstration Object Research, is finishing up its pre-launch preparations before its Wednesday blastoff to the International Space Station(ISS). During its roughly two-week stay, its developers will observe how well the artificially intelligent robot performs skilled tasks in microgravity.

The robot is taking the trip aboard a “manned” trial launch of the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft and the Soyuz-2.1a carrier rocket, out of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This Russian State Space Corporation Roscosmos launch is “unscrewed” because humans will not be accompanying the android, which took its seat amongst the cargo in the hold on Friday.

Space-droid tweets to its fans

“It’s very tight here. Barely fit with the cargo in the cabin of the Soyuz MS. Their loading is complete. I look around. At 6 p.m. Moscow time, my spaceship goes to dock with a rocket,” the humanoid robot tweeted in Russian.

If you can read Russian, you can join FEDOR’s more than 4,000 Twitter followers, who keep up with its progress on its Twitter page.

Once the robot arrived at the cosmodrome last month, its name was changed to Skybot F-850, according to Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin. This alias feels strongly like a callback to the 2003 film Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and may allude to the robot’s potential roles both on and off the ground.

In the Hollywood blockbuster, Arnold Schwarzenegger reprised his deadly android role, playing the Cyber Research Systems Model 101 Series 850 Infiltration-Combat Unit. In the Terminator-verse year of 2032, the Series 850 androids are called T-850, and are manufactured and controlled by Skynet – the all-powerful robot “bad guys”.

True meaning of ‘-850?’

Here’s the callback twist: Schwarzenegger’s Skynet T-850 character had been reprogrammed to rescue John Connor, the future leader of the human resistance, from more-advanced human-esque evil androids that travel back through time to rewrite history.

With the “F” standing for FEDOR, Skybot F-850 has also been designed to be a rescue-droid. At least that had been the official Russian line. The Android Technology Company and Russia’s Emergencies Ministry formed a joint robot development team called the Rescuer project.

The publicised programme mission was to design the FEDOR model to take the place of humans in rescue operations in high-risk conditions such as fires or natural disasters – or in the irradiated yet frozen vacuum of space. But that story lost some of its credibility when in April 2017 Rogozin tweeted out a video called “Russian battle robots – guys with an iron character”. It went viral.

Too much like The Terminator for comfort?

Set to a theme-appropriate score, the video opens with robotic tanks attacking robotic ground targets on a test range. After a couple of explosions delivered by a mini drone, the video cuts away to FEDOR standing astride while firing Glock pistols from each aluminum hand, the bullet casings landing at its steely toes.

Once the video made the rounds on social media, many of FEDOR’s foreign-parts suppliers un-friended it in both the digital and analog worlds, wanting nothing more to do with the robot or the team.

In an interview with the Russian state media RIA, Android Technology’s Executive Director Evgeny Dudorov said, “Perhaps we would continue to use foreign products, but after some of our partners, from whom we bought engines, saw that the FEDOR robot learned to shoot, we were refused supplies. There was nothing else to do but to develop and start assembling our own engines.”

The context here must also include the fact that on March 17, 2014, the United States froze Rogozin’s assets and barred him from entering the country because of his involvement with the annexation of Crimea as Russia’s then-Deputy Prime Minister. Four days later, the European Union followed suit.

During a visit to Baikonur last October, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine invited Rogozin, now head of the Russian space programme, to come on a reciprocal visit to the US. But his particular status forced Bridenstine in January to rescind the invite, a diplomatic no-no, a month before the planned visit to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

It walks, talks and has a sense of humour

At the cosmodrome, Skybot F-850’s handlers seem to embrace the bad-bot persona, minus the black leather jacket. On August 5 the robot’s Twitter feed featured a doctored image of its head superimposed on a futuristic RoboCop-like torso with a human hand holding yet another pistol, and a video of it playing the electric guitar in a fast-paced jam session.

Russian state-owned media has reported that because Skybot F-850 does possess artificial intelligence, it can socialise with the ISS crew, from starting with welcoming pleasantries to discussing the origins of space. Its creators claim that it even has a sense of humour.

So the question that comes to mind is: How funny will it be if while on board the ISS, Skybot F-850 starts to sing, “Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do?”

Source: Al Jazeera