Feb. 12, 2015

Mission Accomplished: Robot Astronaut Kirobo Returns to Earth


Kirobo, a tiny talking robot, has made history for robotkind.

After an impressive 18 months on board the International Space Station, humanoid communication robot Kirobo returned to Earth as a passenger on SpaceX’s CRS-5 Dragon cargo supply spacecraft, which successfully splashed down in the Pacific Ocean earlier today.

Photo: SpaceX

Standing only 34 centimeters tall and weighing around a kilogram, Kirobo might seem an unlikely candidate for a marathon spaceflight. To the founding partners of the Kibo Robot Project, however, boldly sending a pint-sized android astronaut into space is an important first step toward understanding how humans and robots might interact in space in the future. The project is the result of collaboration between:

  • Tokyo-based communications firm Dentsu Inc.
  • The University of Tokyo's Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology (RCAST)
  • Kyoto-based Robo Garage Co., Ltd.
  • Toyota Motor Corporation
  • The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

RCAST and Robo Garage worked on hardware and body movement, with Toyota providing voice-recognition technology and Dentsu handling conversation content as well as overall project management.

The Kibo Robot Project was announced in November 2012, and Kirobo was introduced along with fellow communications robot and ground crew member Mirata at a press conference in Tokyo in June 2013. In the meantime, the project partners engaged in exhaustive testing to prove that a robot would have the right stuff for the job. Kirobo's inorganic nature required a total of fourteen mission-specific tests, including a range of thermal, acoustic and electromagnetic analyses and zero-gravity simulations. For a comprehensive look at the process of determining whether or not Kirobo would make the grade, visit http://kibo-robo.jp/en/story/ (videos in Japanese with optional subtitles).

Early in the morning on August 4, 2013, in front of a cheering crowd, the Kounotori 4 cargo transfer vehicle carrying Kirobo blasted off from Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan.

Just over two weeks later, Kirobo became the first robot to speak in outer space, declaring: "on August 21, 2013, a robot took one small step toward a brighter future for all." In December, Kirobo and astronaut Koichi Wakata, the first-ever Japanese commander of the ISS, took part in the world's first conversation between a robot and a human in outer space.

Commander Wakata's expedition on board the ISS came to an end in May 2014, and—bidding an emotional farewell to one another—the two pledged to meet up again on Earth to share their memories. In August of the same year, Kirobo delivered his final message from space, thanking the people of Earth for watching over him (see video below; please enable subtitles). Following this message, Kirobo was deactivated and readied for the return to Earth (after all, it's lonely out in space).

What's next for Kirobo and friends? In the short term, a debriefing session will be held in Japan in late March. And, naturally, Kirobo and Mirata will have a lot of catching up to do after 18 months apart. After that, the future looks bright for the work of the Kibo Robot Project: while examining the results of the conversation experiments conducted on board the ISS, the project partners will keep exploring the possibilities of human-robot co-operation.

Photo: SpaceX

List of websites relating to Kirobo, Mirata and the Kibo Robot Project members
Kibo Robot Project: http://kibo-robo.jp/en/home
Dentsu: http://www.dentsu.com/
RCAST: http://www.rcast.u-tokyo.ac.jp/index_en.html
Robo Garage: http://www.robo-garage.com/en/
JAXA: http://global.jaxa.jp/