Talking robot to blast into space for experiment in human/robot conversation

A small, humanoid robot will be flown to the International Space Station this summer to take part in the first experiment on conversation in space between a human and a robot.

The effort could speed the development of small robots that people could carry in their pockets like smartphones.

Robot Kirobo talks to Fuminori Kataoka, a project general manager at Toyota Motor Corp., during the robot’s debut in Tokyo Wednesday. Robo Garage and Toyota jointly developed the robot, which will be aboard a cargo spacecraft traveling to the International Space Station on Aug. 4.

Toru Hanai/Reuters
Robot Kirobo talks to Fuminori Kataoka, a project general manager at Toyota Motor Corp., during the robot's debut in Tokyo on Wednesday. Robo Garage and Toyota jointly developed the robot, which will be aboard a cargo spacecraft traveling to the International Space Station on Aug. 4.

Kirobo, a 13.4-inch tall, 2.2-pound humanoid, black-and-white robot with red boots, is scheduled to take off for the space station on Aug. 4 aboard a Kounotori 4 cargo spacecraft that will lift off from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center.

The robot will be unloaded and stowed until Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata arrives in November to take part in the experiment.

“Kirobo will remember Mr. Wakata’s face so it can recognize him when they reunite up in space,” said Kirobo’s creator Tomotaka Takahashi, roboticist and founder of Kyoto University’s Robo-Garage, one of the organization’s behind the project.

Takahashi was quoted in a report by the Agence-France Press, a French-based news agency.

Wakata, a Japanese engineer and a veteran of four NASA space shuttle missions and a long-duration stay on the space station, is scheduled to launch onboard the Soyuz TMA-11M in November. During this mission, he will become Japan’s first station commander.

Kirobo, which can move its head and arms, stand up and even stand on one leg, is expected to help keep Wakata company, having conversations with him and possibly relaying information to him from the control room or ground engineers.

According to the AFP report, Takahashi wanted to create a tiny robot that users could carry in their pocket like a smartphone. “By bringing a robot into space, the development of a symbiotic robot is expected to move along much faster,” Takahashi said.

Surprising, not the first

Kirobo won’t be the first robot to “live” and work on the space station.

The space station, which uses several robotic arms to lift bulky cargo and maneuver equipment and spacewalking astronauts outside the station, also is home to Robonaut 2, or R2.

Robonaut 2 is a 300-pound robot designed to use its arms and hands to manipulate tools and to perform cleaning and maintenance jobs on the space station, saving the human crew from time-consuming tasks.

Robonaut 2, which arrived on the space station in 2011, is expected to one day work outside the space station so astronauts won’t have to make as many dangerous spacewalks. It has a total of 38 PowerPC processors, including 36 embedded chips, which control its joints. Each of the embedded processors communicates with the robot’s main chip.

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