There are certain areas of the International Space Station that most astronauts would rather not visit — like the exterior. But, sometimes, somebody has to clamber around out there, looking for hull cracks. That's when the ISS calls on Russia's SAR-400 telepresence assist-droid.
The SAR-400 is the Russian Space Agency's answer to the recently launched Robonaut 2 (and it bears an uncanny resemblance to the US drone's design). Designed and built by the Scientific Production Association-Androidnye Technology, and the Central Research Institute of Machine Building, the SAR-400 has been in production and testing at Star City since 2005.
Its Cylon looks are actually an important part of its design. According to Alexander Zheleznyakov of the Tsiolkovsky Academy of Cosmonautics:
Human-looking androids are easier for humans to perceive. The crew will find it more convenient and pleasant to deal with human-looking technical devices. It will compensate for a lack of communication with other humans. Earlier, emphasis was put on the functionality of robots. The creation of a full-sized android is a major step forward.
Now, this robot isn't exactly Rosie. In fact, as far as robots go, the SAR-400 is pretty half-arsed. It has no brain, no intelligence, it does zero thinking on its own. In fact, the SAR-400 could be best described as either a really advanced puppet. Just like the Robonaut 2, the SAR-400 has no lower body — instead, it moves about while mounted to the station's crane.
But what's really wild is the way it's controlled. An Earth-based operator dons a heads-up display (HUD) helmet, a sensor jacket and haptic-feedback gloves. The gear directly controls the movements of the robot's limbs. A safety mechanism kicks in if the robot's hand gets trapped in, say, an airlock. It alerts the operator that the robot is stuck without remotely crushing his puny meat-flesh in a haptic bloodbath.
"A human life is the most important thing," Andrei Nosov, the head of the Moscow-based android engineering centre, told Voice of Russia. "There are lots of risks up in orbit. Anything can happen. A robot can duplicate the movements of an operator that manipulates it from Earth. It can work both in a duplicate mode and an autonomous mode. This is convenient, less risky and less expensive."
RSA administrators hope to have the droid delivered to the ISS within the next two years. Once there, the droid will be employed in the more dangerous aspects of the space station's maintenance — tightening bolts, inspection the exterior hull for damage and transferring cargo. [Gizmodo France - Technabob - NPO-AT - Voice of Russia - Plastic Pals - Space Safety Magazine]