The Soyuz rocket is built for humanoids. First flown in 1966, Soyuz variants have a long and strikingly durable history of putting humans into orbit, and functioning since the retirement of the Space Shuttle as the sole way humans get to the International Space Station.
Today, the Soyuz capsule carried a novel passenger: a Russian FEDOR android.
While this will be the most high-profile mission for FEDOR, it comes after some major reworking of the robot design. Now an android of science, FEDOR was once a different kind of machine.
“Prior to 2019, all of FEDOR’s key parts — gearboxes, sensors, engines, cameras, computers — were imported,” said Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses. “It’s interesting that such a flagship product, designed originally not just for space but for dealing with emergencies — depended almost entirely on non-Russian parts.”
A change to more Russian-made parts was brought about by foreign fears of FEDOR presaging autonomous weapons.
“After a famous video of FEDOR firing guns, the foreign parts suppliers refused to provide any more components," Bendett said. “The FEDOR developers had to slowly shift to domestic substitution, but even now, in the words of its designers, it’s just over 50 percent Russian. This demonstrated the larger dependence of many key Russian hi-tech industries on imports, and the fact that despite sanctions in place, developments like FEDOR can in fact go forward, if there is enough government pressure to produce a finished product.”
While on board the ISS for at most a fortnight, FEDOR will be tele-operated, a human pilot steering the machine through the unique challenges posed by weightlessness. Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, said it will use some limited autonomy while in space, mostly for communication. It may even crack jokes, which is a deeply underrated skill set for robots.
Most of the functionality of a humanoid robot on a space station, as opposed to the more abstracted robot spheres and cubes that present assist humans in orbit, will be using hand-shaped tools and performing tasks often completed by humans, but with the confidence that no human is actually in danger. Specifically, this could mean FEDOR may do tasks such as a spacewalk in the future, though this trip is to see if the android can spacecrawl before it learns to spacewalk.
All of this is good and in keeping with the international and research impetus of the space station. But there’s still the lingering suspicion that a humanoid robot built to wield guns may be used to do so again in a terrestrial capacity.
“The bigger question that has bothered a lot of observers is: if an android similar to FEDOR can be used in combat,” said Bendett. “For that to happen, a huge number of issues have to be worked out, from independent robotic movement to orientation in space to proper environment identification. This implies an AI support that hasn’t been developed yet - so far, robots like FEDOR are going to be tele-operated or perform a limited number of pre-programmed tasks.”
When it comes to foreshadowing the dangers of robots in war, focus less on how closely the machine’s body resembles a killing machine from fiction. A humanoid body only means it was designed to fit into human-shaped places and use human-designed tools. At present, Roskosmos suggests this autonomy will be in the service of peaceful work in space, and will remain that way for many missions to come.
Autonomy is a body-independent phenomena, and when it comes to how capable a robot really is, the proof is in the coding.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.