When airline passenger Athena recently arrived at Los Angeles Airport for an international flight, she caused quite a stir, not because she was a celebrity (which happens often at this airport), but because she is a robot, the first humanoid version of her kind to pay for an airline ticket.

The robot arrived at the airport in a wheelchair and picked up her economy class ticket just like everyone else, although she did receive some special treatment, cutting in front of the first class ticket line.

Her appearance caused a scene, when people recognized her as a robot. Cameras flashed and television crews were on hand to record her appearance.

Athena, created by Salt Lake City engineering and robotics company Sarcos, was on her way to Frankfurt, Germany to visit the Max Planck Institute for Computational Learning and Motor Control Laboratory, where programmers will code her to walk. Eventually, her creators hope that she can handle tasks that are too dangerous for humans, including clean up operations after disasters, such as the one that happened at Fukushima, Japan.

"We don't want humans to go there and sacrifice their lives," says Alexander Herzog, a Max Planck doctoral student. "I would like to have a robot achieve the same task, such as opening up doors and cleaning up."

Athena, dressed in a t-shirt and red shoes, was accompanied on her Lufthansa flight by Herzog and his colleague Jeannette Bohg. Just like everyone else, Athena even had a passport. But she did go through a special security screening by the TSA. After that, she was wheeled to her gate and onto the plane. There, Herzog and Bogh secured her in a seat and turned her off for the duration of the long-haul flight, probably making her a better air companion than most.

So why did Athena's team decide their robot deserved human treatment on an airline? The matter was a simple one. In the end, it was cheaper to fly her as a passenger than shipped as electronic gear. The creators were also curious about how humans would respond to a robot passenger.

The answer to that was clear: humans responded mostly with curiosity.

[Photo Credit: Magic Madzik/Flickr]

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