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Inventors of the future. St. Petersburg’s research institute of robotic celebrates 50th birthday

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January 29h marks half a century since the inception of St. Petersburg’s research institute of robotics and technical cybernetics. 50 years ago it began functioning as a department of Leningrad’s Polytechnic University.

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It was back then that robots became something more than just sci-fi characters. Our scientists created devices allowing for softer landings for cosmonauts. Today their unique gadgets provide help in navigating impassable terrain and even conduct the most complex surgeries. Alexander Burenin reports about robots and their creators.

Alexander Burenin, reporter: “Before becoming museum items, these seemingly simple metallic boxes and cones with, surely, important stuffing took to space. Some models are still used. For example, this device called “Cactus” enables soft landing of pods with cosmonauts. In simple terms, like a parking sensor. Ever since 1960s, robots have been produced looking like characters of sci-fi novels. Just having faux heads and hands. People are looking and controlling”

The principle of robotic operations is simple – do things for a human, instead of a human. These platforms serve as cargo movers and mechanics in outer space. Not to mention that those are also used in industrial warehouses.

The beginning of the road is always challenging, but for the institute the middle of the road was in fact the most difficult. There was a risk of a spiraling fall – from the space to the very bottom. The jubilee of 1988 was celebrated with a worry.

Perestroika landed many research institutes and factories into oblivion. When the USSR collapsed, it seemed that the giants of Soviet industries were left without work. The total privatization kicked off. But the institute rejected it. 30 years on many here say that this was the rescuing decision.

Today they’re not only aiming for the space – having set feet firmly on the ground too. This series of models looks like a shelf in a toy store. Only these toys are meant for adults. Those are used for navigation of impassable terrain, can walk over high obstacles and climb up the stairs. With the help of implanted navigation software, these machines can generate terrain maps and, most importantly, help clearing debris. Those are remotely controlled.

By 1986, the institute had plenty remote controlled robots. Almost ready for operations. And then Chernobyl happened – and some had to be finished on the spot.

Oleg Shmakov, head of special gear department at robotics research institute: “We had to create mobile platforms in the shortest time possible. The ones to inspect and clear the debris. Robots were assembled in 3 months. Yes, there had been many problems which surfaced, but this looks surreal in today’s terms”

High radiation levels not only harmed people, but also took out electronics. Many lessons have been learnt upon mistakes of Chernobyl.

Special attention was also paid to medicine. People are being treated with the help of robotics. The onco-robot is described as a breakthrough in treating tumors. The tests begin now. The essence – a special needle gets inside and hits the affected areas with pinpoint accuracy.

Sergey Nikitin, researcher at medical robotics laboratory: “We are talking sub-millimeter levels of accuracy. Tenth of a millimeter. Even medics tell us that the most experienced of them have a 1 to 1.5 millimeter margin

Engineers do not like the word “cure”. They are more about precise numbers. They never envy technological progress – because they are tasked with making it happen. Because even 50 years ago the items which are now being retired into being museum items seemed impossible. And some day the items which have not yet been designed yet will also come on display here.

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