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India's space agency will fly a half-humanoid robot to prepare for its first human spaceflight missions

Darrell Etherington
Visitors take selfies with 'Vyommitra' the first prototype half humanoid robot developed by the Inertial Systems Unit of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for its planned 'Gaganyaan' unmanned mission at an exhibition during a symposium on Human Spaceflight and Exploration - Present Challenges and Future Trends in Bangalore on January 23, 2020. (Photo by Manjunath Kiran / AFP) (Photo by MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is getting ready to begin its human spaceflight program, which aims to carry its first astronauts starting in 2022. In advance of that milestone, however, the agency will be launching its "Gaganyaan" crewed orbital spacecraft later this year (if all goes to plan) -- and while it won't carry any human passengers, it will have one robotic crew member on board.

"Vyommitra" (via Times of India) is the name ISRO has given to its "half-humanoid" robotic astronaut, which will be on board the Gaganyaan when it takes its first flight in December. The robot has a range of functions and features, including being able to operate switch panels to control the capsule, and it can operate as a "companion," with the ability to "converse with the astronauts, recognize them and respond to their queries," as the robot put it in its own words at an unveiling this week.

Vyommitra is bilingual, and its semi-anthropomorphic nature will mean it can provide valuable data from this first uncrewed flight about how Gaganyaan would perform were a person actually strapped in and at the controls. The robot can also apparently perform "all" crew functions, including controlling environmental and life support systems, and it's designed to have an expressive face and lip-sync capabilities for relaying info via voice, including messages from ground control.

This isn't the first robot with human-like design or capabilities to make its way to space: Russia's Skybot has made its way to the ISS, and NASA is testing spheroid robots called "Astrobee" that are designed to support astronauts and act as assistants. Each of these favors a different approach, however, and Vyommitra is an interesting take because of the clear effort put in to have it resemble a human in form as well as function.