Instead of autonomous mobile robots in warehouses, seven-axis arms in factories, or potentially life-saving surgical devices, humanoid models are what most people think of when they think about robots. However, practical applications of androids are still a ways off, as demonstrated in recent tests of the Skybot F-850, the latest in the FEDOR series developed in Russia.
There are a lot of cute headlines alluding to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Terminator, but the real story is how humanoid robots may have distracted people from advancements in useful assistive robots for human spaceflight. This is similar to how budget cuts after the Apollo program led to the space shuttle, which was compromised by design tradeoffs and fatal flaws, rather than further crewed exploration of Earth’s moon and beyond.
Skybot design history
Android Technologies initially developed the SAR-400 and SAR-401 anthropomorphic robot torsos for the Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities from 2011 to about 2016. Roscosmos is analogous to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
NASA’s Robonaut was a similar project, with a humanoid upper body developed with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and General Motors Co. The R1 was developed and tested between 2002 and 2007, and the R2 was developed from 2010 to 2018. GM and NASA tested Robonaut 2 in orbit from 2011 until it malfunctioned in 2018. Japan launched the small humanoid Kirobo in 2013. Since then, both the U.S. and Japan have moved to smaller nonhumanoid drones.
Starting in 2014, Android Technologies began working on the Final Experimentation Demonstration Object Research model, or FEDOR, a full-size humanoid for the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Emergency Situations. It was originally designed to be tele-operated with augmented reality and virtual reality.
Research and development of unmanned ground vehicles, large and small aerial drones, and humanoid robots had intensified after the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. Proponents have claimed that they could be useful in search-and-rescue operations in hazardous environments originally designed around humans. However, the challenges of locomotion, manipulation, power efficiency, and autonomy are greater for humanoid robots than for other body types.
NASA’s R5, or Valkyrie, was designed for the 2013 DARPA Robotics Challenge trials with Mars colonization in mind. The humanoid didn’t perform as hoped for, and prototypes now reside at MIT, Northeastern University, and the New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, as well as at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
On Aug. 22, 2019, a supply capsule including Skybot F-850 was launched. After a failed docking attempt, the Russian robot arrived at the International Space Station on Aug. 27.
It took cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin multiple attempts to turn on the robot. Skybot was expected to participate in “about five or six scientific tasks” such as slowly connecting electrical adapters, and it held a drill for only a moment before it was taken away.
It also soon became apparent that a humanoid design was not optimal for aiding cosmonauts or astronauts in the tight confines of the ISS. To be fair, it was originally envisioned as something to be operated outside while humans stayed inside.
FEDOR is 1.8m (6 ft.) tall and weighs about 160kg (350 lb.) — weight may not matter in space, but size and mass do. During testing, engineers had posted videos of the robot doing splits (even though it reportedly required support to stand) and firing handguns, stoking fears of the further militarization of space.
Skybot’s legs, which were intended for human-style extravehicular activities or space walks, were unwieldy in low gravity, so Alexander Skvortsov and Ovchinin disabled them. The robot had not been programmed to move by pulling itself on handrails.
An uncrewed Soyuz MS-14 capsule brought FEDOR back to Earth on Sept. 6.
“He won’t fly there anymore,” said Yevgeny Dudorov, executive director of Android Technologies, referring to the ISS. “There’s nothing more for him to do there; he’s completed his mission.”
The following post was the last on Skybot’s Twitter account (attributed to the robot for maximum anthropomorphization):
Humanoids in space?
The shortcomings of Skybot should not be viewed as a blot on the vaunted record of Russian engineering. Instead, developers of robots for exploration, assisting humans, or replacing them in hostile environments should consider whether a humanoid form factor is right for the jobs. While different from the ISS, earthbound applications are just as challenging for developers of humanoid robots.
“It’s still unclear how justifiable is the concept of an anthropomorphic robot working on a space station,” said Segey Kolyubin, head of the International Laboratory of Biomechatronics and Energy-Efficient Robotics at ITMO University in Russia. “Generally though, when there is direct interaction with a human, this format can be considered appropriate because from the interaction’s standpoint, it’s easier to read the robot’s intentions and actions if anatomically it resembles a person. In regard to the utility, if we were to leave the interaction aspect and the specific space station location aside, it wouldn’t matter as much should the robot be anthropomorphic or not.”
The quest for more capable robots in space continues. NASA last month announced the second phase of its Space Robotics Challenge. Phase 1 involved the improving the R5’s dexterity, while Phase 2 is focused on autonomous construction on the moon or Mars using local materials.
The Robot Report is launching the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum, which will be on Dec. 9-10 in Santa Clara, Calif. The conference and expo will focus on improving the design, development and manufacture of next-generation healthcare robots. Learn more about the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum, and registration will be open soon.