“Come a little closer, human,” urged Vasily, a robotic octopus with suction cups that bore a suspicious resemblance to the rubber end of a toilet plunger. The enthralled crowd of children – and adults – took a step forward. A jet of water shot unexpectedly out of Vasily’s head, hitting a startled woman square in the face. Vasily and the surrounding children cackled with delight.

A young boy tests the buttons of Vasily the robot-octopus, mounted on an upside-down saucepan. Photo: Sk.ru.

Vasily was just one of 60 robotics projects on show at the Skolkovo Technopark on Friday as part of the annual Skolkovo Robotics event. While many of the projects and devices in the exhibition were serious technology that can transform and even save lives – from rehabilitation exoskeletons for disabled people to robot-monitors for use when natural disasters strike – this year’s event saw both a large number of educational projects and, perhaps even more importantly, a sizeable proportion of children among its visitors. And while robots like Vasily may at first seem lighthearted, their job is anything but frivolous: they are inspiring new generations of robotics engineers. 

Sergei Tsyss with his creation Vasily, who was designed to be transparent in order to show children how a robot works. Photo: Sk.ru.

“Vasily was created for educational purposes; we deliberately made him transparent so that children can learn how robots are built and see the various parts,” Sergei Tsyss, creative director of the Green Space art and science bureau that made the robotic cephalopod, told Sk.ru. 

“We made Vasily especially for Skolkovo Robotics. It was a challenge, as we made him in just one month,” he added.

Green Space makes interactive and informative installations for museums and exhibitions, providing both the technology and the content. With his limbs lit up with flashing lights in changing colours, Vasily alternated between telling a constant stream of jokes in a comically robotic voice and blaring out music, but there is a serious message behind the company’s creations.

One of Green Space’s earlier projects is a three-metre robo-shark installed at the Moskvarium centre of oceanography and marine biology at the All-Russian Exhibition Centre (VDNKh) in Moscow. The shark was created to illustrate the problem of pollution in the world’s oceans and show why large predators are dying out. Visitors can see the effect of pieces of plastic entering the shark’s gills and how the impact of this is greatest on those animals at the top of the food chain. 

In a world in which children spend an increasing amount of time online, in front of screens and in virtual worlds, the company sees its robots as a way of teaching children in an entertaining way and getting them to spend more time in the real world.

“People think of robots as things designed to solve a specific task, but they can also be used as a means of obtaining knowledge and experiencing new emotions,” said Sergei Musikhin, general director of Green Space.

Skolkovo Robotics featured 18 different master classes, many of which were designed for children. Photo: Sk.ru.

The company has set itself another task: boosting contact between people and technology.

“There’s not enough of that right now in robotics, there’s not enough humour and understanding of human psychology,” said Tsyss.

“It’s amazing that people haven’t yet come to love robots; maybe it’s because robots weren’t appealing enough, or didn’t communicate enough with people,” said Konstantin Ivanov, managing partner at Green Space.

“But that problem can be solved, and that’s our main mission here today,” he told Sk.ru.

On the other side of the exhibition, another educational project was on show with a very specific task. On a floor mat depicting the cratered surface of the moon were carefully placed a miniature rocket launcher, moon rover and satellites – all made out of LEGO.

Two little boys getting acquainted with a moon base and rocket launcher made out of LEGO. Photo: Sk.ru.

“This is an educational project designed to develop technical engineering skills among kids,” said Andrei Peshkov, a representative of LEGO Education. “The main aim is to teach them the basics of robotics and programming.”

Using the specialised LEGO set, children have to build and programme a robot to perform tasks such as placing a rocket-carrier on a launch complex, positioning communications transmitters in a certain way, locating an old lunar rover and other tasks – and these are not just theoretical exercises.

“This is a set of tasks that imitate Russia’s lunar programme through 2035, as devised by Roscosmos. All the tasks were developed in close collaboration with Roscosmos and United Rocket and Space Corporation,” the state corporations in charge of Russia’s federal space programme, explained Peshkov.

“The lunar programme will be nearing its completion and culmination when today’s schoolchildren are graduating from university,” he said. “We need to instill a dream in them to take part in this project, to become close to the space industry. We need to gradually introduce young brains to this field, and that’s what we had in mind when we started work on this project.” 

Derevyaka, a wooden robot on wheels, invites children to put their hands in his mouth as part of a game. Photo: Sk.ru.

The LEGO project is designed for pupils in middle and high schools to work on in teams under the supervision of a teacher, and was devised with input from a number of teachers. Its creators – Lego Education Russia and the International Association of Sport and Educational Robotics – are now formulating a 144-hour study programme for teachers to follow using the set, and the company expects to launch the final product on the market in six months.

In another part of the vast Technopark, a group of children followed Derevyaka, a robot that appears to consist of a series of wooden boxes stacked on top of each other. Rolling around and chatting to passers-by, the robot, made by Robodem, encouraged children to put coins in its slot in exchange for a sweet – dispensed from another box on the robot’s back – or a game.

Alisa Scherbakova, a seven-year-old pupil at the Skolkovo International Gymnasium, said Derevyaka was her favourite robot being demonstrated at Skolkovo Robotics, “because it asked a lot of questions and was interesting.”

Her brother Maxim, 12, said he had been most impressed by the robotic forklift trucks made by Skolkovo resident RoboCV, which were moving around warehouse pallets without any human interaction in one area of the Technopark.

“That seems like a very useful invention,” said Maxim, who also studies at the Gymnasium, where he attends robotics classes.

Skolkovo Robotics also included 18 different master classes designed for people of all ages and levels of experience. Many of them were open to children aged from as young as six, and were fully booked up more than a month before the event.

Alisa and Maxim took part in different master classes on Friday, and both said they would like to build their own robot one day.

“Though it’s a huge job, of course,” said Maxim.

The visible involvement of and appeal to future generations of roboticists at Skolkovo Robotics, now in its fifth year, reflected the event’s motto, coined by its founder, Albert Yefimov:

“If the country doesn’t think about its robots, robots will start to think about our country.”