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Just Like You, Robots Fly Economy Class

"Athena," the first humanoid robot with its own airline ticket, travels from USC Viterbi to the Max Planck Institute
By: Stefan Schaal and Megan Hazle
December 22, 2014 —
Athena takes a seat on the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, Germany (Photo courtesy of Stefan Schaal)

On December 15, the humanoid robot “Athena” flew economy class with other passengers from Los Angeles to Frankfurt via Lufthansa flight 457. During the flight, Athena was seated as a ticketed passenger, becoming the first robot to fly like just like a human. Unlike most humans, however, Athena was swarmed by reporters at both LAX and Frankfurt airport in Germany.

"Athena" with Alexander Herzog and Jeannette Bohg at LAX (Photo courtesy of Stefan Schaal)

Athena is a new bipedal humanoid robot designed for use in rough terrain, with a view towards emergency and disaster response situations. The robot was initially developed under funding from the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) in a joint project between Sarcos Inc., a company specializing in innovative robotic designs, and the labs under USC Viterbi computer science professors Laurent Itti and Stefan Schaal. Later, funding for the project was provided by the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Germany, a collaborating institute of Schaal’s, which became Athena’s final home.

Robots like Athena are partially inspired by catastrophes like the Fukushima earthquake and the following meltdown of a nuclear reactor. Despite decades of robotics research, no suitable robotic systems were available or ready to help in this scenario. In reaction to this shortcoming, many countries have initiated research efforts to create suitable robots for such problems. Athena is a hydraulic robot, 1.88 meters tall, and only about 50kg. It is built to be able to right itself if it falls over and can also maneuver through complex terrain and perform manipulation tasks. A laser scanner in the robot’s head allows long-range vision, while an additional stereo camera provides 3D perception of nearby objects and terrain.

In 2012, USC Viterbi computer science Ph.D student Ross Mead accompanied the robot Bandit to and from New York on a commercial flight (Photo courtesy of Ross Mead)

Athena underwent initial testing at USC Viterbi and, once completed, the cheapest form of transporting the robot to Germany turned out to be an economy class passenger seat on a commercial airliner. In direct coordination with Lufthansa, a ticket for Athena was purchased and Ph.D. student Alexander Herzog and research scientist Jeannette Bohg accompanied the robot on the flight. Athena’s two human companions, both former researchers at USC Viterbi, transported the robot through the airport and onto the plane via wheelchair.

Athena’s arms are still a plastic prototype, soon to be replaced in by robotic arms. For the moment, the robot’s power supplies are off-board and a power-autonomous version of Athena is planned for the future. Schaal and Itti will continue collaborating with the German research lab to make Athena a robot that can autonomously solve complex tasks in an outdoors environment.

“The research challenges to accomplish this goal remain very significant,” said Schaal. “We will first focus on robust walking in rough terrain and visual perception of the terrain for motion planning so the robot can autonomously walk around. Manipulation tasks will be the second phase of the project.”