The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why a 6-foot-2 robot found itself cramped in coach on an 11-hour flight

Meet Athena. (Lufthansa)
Placeholder while article actions load

If you needed to get a robot from Los Angeles to Germany, how would you do it? Shipping it in a package seems like an obvious solution. But researchers Alexander Herzog and Jeannette Bohg know better. Their German robotics lab once shipped a robotic arm to their lab. It cost over $6,000 to transport, and its arrival was delayed as it got caught in customs. (The high cost results from the special packaging and insurance.)

So when their research team at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems wanted to buy an American-made robot, they started looking for alternatives.

The researchers contacted the airline Lufthansa over the summer and asked if they could purchase a seat for a robot. Six months later Herzog found himself wheeling the robot, named Athena, through Los Angeles International Airport. Travelers stopped and stared. Others snapped photos.

Whenever a person came within three feet of the robot, named Athena, she smiled. The researchers swapped out her head for the duration of the flight with one that was capable of displaying a smile or frown. Thanks to facial recognition technology Athena could tell if a human was near, which triggered the smile. The researchers dressed her in a T-shirt and red Converse sneakers to add a human touch.

“People just loved it,” said Bohg, who joined Herzog and Athena on the trip.

Lufthansa tipped off the TSA about Athena’s flight ahead of time. The robot wasn’t require to go through an X-ray machine. Instead paper that detects explosives was wiped on Athena.

“In my now 19 years with the company this was the most unusual passenger — besides maybe some white lion cubs by Siegfried & Roy,” said Lufthansa spokesman Michael Lamberty.

The attention didn’t stop on the plane. After being allowed to board first with Athena, Herzog and Bohg watched as kids clogged the plane’s aisle to get a view of the 6-foot-2 robot.

Athena was big enough that she needed two seats. Bohg and Herzog rigged the seatbelts together to hold her in place.

While it may seem like a silly publicity stunt, putting Athena in the passenger cabin saved the researchers thousands of dollars. The two seats cost about $4,000. It would have cost more than twice as much to ship her in a suitable box, which would require insurance to cover a robot that cost more than $2 million to develop.

Since arriving in Germany Athena has led a quieter, simpler life. Her researchers will first try to teach her to balance. Then they’ll teach her to walk.

Eventually they hope robots like Athena, powered by algorithms that can navigate complex terrain, will serve roles in disaster relief operations. And if a robot can handle the mayhem of a hurricane or nuclear plant meltdown, work in hotels, bars and elsewhere might be easy by comparison.