back to article Spotted: Bizarre SpaceX rocket-snatching machine that looks like it belongs on Robot Wars

A robot has been spotted on the landing pad of SpaceX's floating barge Of course I still love you, and the rocket biz is refusing to say what it is for. Coming soon from SpaceX! Click to enlarge (Source: Stephen Marr, used with permission) This photo of the machine was taken by a couple flying over the Florida port where …

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    1. John McCallum

      Donuts & Coffee

      I think that those donuts are from the iron fairy that you can see above the robot.

    2. MrT

      "Alexa, lock the doors...

      "...and then vacuum the landing pad."

    3. macjules

      I'm pretty sure that is Hammond centre SSE, legless on the ground by the yellow bucket. No wait, it's a crash-test dummy.

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  3. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    The landing legs must fold down promptly and securely in seconds after a rough flight into space and back. The legs are thus a major failure point, as proved when a booster fell over because one leg didn't lock. This gadget might have saved that booster. A single booster saved from this failure mode might easily pay for the entire grabber program.

    1. rh587

      This gadget might have saved that booster.

      No. This gadget appears to "live" in a blastproof garage at one end of the barge - their landings are not (quite) good enough to land on this device - the booster lands and this then scuttles out and stops it walking across the deck in rolling seas (instead of people having to board the barge and secure a large explosive tube).

      If a leg fails to lock out, this won't save it.

    2. Doug 3

      buckled legs during transport worst

      More likely is this will support the rocket in the even one or more of the landing struts has become damaged on landing. Currently they lock down the landing struts to hold the rocket in place for the transport back to the dock. A serious failure of a landing strut results in a failed landing but some have landed with damaged struts so this would provide a safer trip back to the dock.

      It might even work as an unloading mechanism too.

  4. Gene Cash Silver badge

    Falcon heavy

    This is probably for Falcon Heavy, where you're going to have 2 (maybe 3) booster cores coming back in rapid succession, so you're not going to want meatbags running out into the line of fire to secure them. It's a problem I didn't think of though...

    1. Hopalong

      Re: Falcon heavy

      With the heavy, the side boosters return to LZ-1 at the cape, only the central stage lands on the barge.

      1. Jon 37

        Re: Falcon heavy

        > With the heavy, the side boosters return to LZ-1 at the cape, only the central stage lands on the barge.

        Depends on the mission. Not recovering the central stage gets you a bit more usable power to launch your payload, because you don't need to save fuel for the boostback burn and landing. Recovering the side boosters to a barge rather than the cape gets you a bit more, because their boostback burn is shorter so they can use more fuel boosting the payload. Not recovering anything gets you maximum power, because you can use all the rocket's fuel on the payload. Missions that need the extra power will cost extra to cover the loss of the rocket.

        Also, most of the time the central stage isn't going to be able to fly all the way back to land at the same place as the side boosters, since that would require keeping a lot of fuel in it for a huge boostback burn, which dramatically reduces your usable power. The central stage will normally land much further along the rocket's track. So the barge to land the central stage will be many miles from the LZ or barges where the boosters land.

        My expectation was that they'd use two barges if the two side boosters were landing on a barge, or three barges if they're landing the lot. That way, if something goes wrong you only lose one booster not two or three. If something goes wrong, the "rapid uncontrolled disassembly" of one rocket is likely to lead to further "rapid uncontrolled disassembly" of any other rocket on the same barge. Also, flying two boosters in close formation to land on the same barge at the same time sounds very risky, they're likely to hit or interfere with each other in flight. Better to have them separate a bit and aim for a couple of barges maybe a mile apart.

  5. Your alien overlord - fear me

    One of the guys on the actual robot overlord is wearing a stetson and no hi-vis vest - is he your mandatory "cowboy" construction worker?

    1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

      A descendant of Major Kong, maybe?

    2. GlenP Silver badge

      Could be a Stetson Hard Hat, yes, they do exist (I've got one, Yee Ha!)

      1. Scroticus Canis

        Uppies for the "Yee Ha!" - made me smile

        I like a man who sticks to his cultural roots - even cowboys!

        (No I don't have an armoured bowler hat)

        1. TheOldGuy

          Re: No I don't have an armoured bowler hat

          That's because John Steed has them all.

          1. Mark 85 Silver badge

            Re: No I don't have an armoured bowler hat

            John Steed. Now that's a name I hadn't heard in a long time. Upvote!!!!

        2. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

          Re: Uppies for the "Yee Ha!" - made me smile

          (No I don't have an armoured bowler hat)

          Strangely enough - the bowler hats *were* the original hard hat - designed for foremen and other slighty-more-than-peon workers - both to show their importance but also to try and save their heads from being bashed in by the workforce..

          And then later they got adopted as the traditional hat by banking and City types.

          Life's like that sometimes.

    3. phuzz Silver badge

      Wow, they really do exist.

      I wonder if there's a flat cap version for Yorkshiremen and hipsters?

      1. GrumpyOldMan

        Wow! In different colours! No Green though. Some sites need green for noobs to site.

      2. Peter2 Silver badge

        I doubt it. My first thought is that it's actually a pretty practical design if your working in blazing sunlight as it provides shade to cover the face and neck and has enough of a lip to deflect small objects dropped from a height away from the wearer. Also looks a bit better than the normal hard hats, which is obviously the point.

        Presumably you'd need a minimum spacing between the helmet and head to take an impact as well as an all around lip for a compliant hard hat, so doing things like flat caps or baseball caps are probably out. I'd have thought a bowler hat or top hat would be possible, but who'd buy one?

      3. GrumpyOldMan

        Or a wooly hat version for teens and 20-somethings

  6. Mikel

    Getting cocky

    If they're planning to land their launch vehicle on this thing they must be getting confident of their targeting.

    As for multiple landings we already covered that. They're going to land them stacked vertically.

  7. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

    This has been discussed elsewhere

    In summary, fleshies cower miles away and race in as fast as they can after the landing. This can still take hours. During that time the motion of the drone ship causes the rocket to walk across the deck. On a bad day the rocket could walk into the sea before anyone can stop it. Luckily, where humans fear to tread, a robot is ready to rush in and prevent its friend from committing suicide.

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: This has been discussed elsewhere

      This would be my "most likely option" as well. It's clearly not design to be shockproof and fireproof, meaning it's not intended to be in the line of fire as the rocket comes down, thus it has to come into action afterwards. The design overall seems to be low enough to fit under the engine bells. I am wondering a bit if the jacks would fit under the legs though.

  8. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    "Luckily, where humans fear to tread, a robot is ready to rush in "

    Of course, having the survival instincts of a depressed lemming helps here.

    Happy because I'm not one of the meatsacks involved.

    1. Robert Moore

      Re: "Luckily, where humans fear to tread, a robot is ready to rush in "

      "Of course, having the survival instincts of a depressed lemming helps here."

      In that case, I suggest it should be named Marvin.

  9. PeeKay

    For Capsule Splashdowns

    Looks like it clamps the Dragon capsule to the barge for the journey home...

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: For Capsule Splashdowns

      Different platform. Count the clamping arms.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    In need of a booster? A Flat White - Marvin?

    How about calling it a flat white Marvin. (ref. Paranoid Android, Hitch hikers)

    I'd be a little bit paranoid (as a robot), if someone told me to get aboard a drone ship, called "Of course I still love you", wait for a rocket to land and then move between its legs directly underneath its engines and attach myself, then wait for further instructions.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: In need of a booster? A Flat White - Marvin?

      Actually scrub that - just, the "Flat White", is probably better.

      You'd need probably need a coffee after that ordeal of space/landing.

  11. lglethal Silver badge

    Catchy McCatchface surely?

    Or perhaps Catchy McRocketface?

    Come now, that Meme hasnt got that old yet...

  12. JasonLaw

    The late lamented Mr. Banks

    There are too many ship names to pick out of the Culture books, but I'd maybe go for the eccentric GSV in Excession; "Quietly Confident".

    Or if you want to be less charitable, "Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory".

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's to enable them to explain away any failed booster landingds ... "booster landing was perfect except that it landed in the CPZ and Dead Metal pushed it over the flame pit so it exploded

  14. GrumpyOldMan

    Or maybe something else entirely...

    Could Elon Musk be planning an entry for Robot Wars... ? Now THAT would be interesting.

  15. Adrian Jones


    I think you mean autonomous drone ship.

    barge /bɑːdʒ/ noun: a long flat-bottomed boat for carrying freight on canals and rivers, either under its own power or towed by another.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Barge?

      I do believe there's seagoing barges. New York city uses them to haul the garbage out to sea for dumping.

  16. Santa from Exeter

    Ship Name

    As it lives in a kennel on a barge designed to catch falling flaming rockets I would have thought that 'Screw Loose' from The Player of Games would fit admirably.

  17. IsJustabloke

    *I'm rolling eyes at you*

    I'd just like to say that commentards that use words like "meatbags" and "fleshies" are not nearly as cool as they think they are... quite the opposite in fact.... and if they don't think they're cool they must realise they're not in the slightest bit original either.

    unlike Space X who are very cool indeed.

  18. smugleo

    I can see Henry the Hoover, he's on there!!!

  19. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    I thin k you mean Henry the Numatic. Hoover don't make Henrys

    1. cosymart

      Correct the correction :-)

      Corrections to your pedantic comment: I think you mean Henry the vacuum cleaner. Hoover don't make Henry's. - Nice try but no cigar.

      On a related note I am not sure if "Hoover" has now passed the point at which it is interchangeable with "vacuum cleaner", I suspect it is.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Correct the correction :-)

        Henry vacuum cleaners are made by Numatic, hence Henry the Numatic to replace Henry the Hoover in the OPs comment.

        But you're right, Hoover is accepted by most people as a generic synonym for for vacuum cleaner, I think Hoover have pretty much "lost" their trademark in that respect.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Culture AI General Systems Vessels

    "SpaceX's floating barge Of course I still love you"

    now SOMEBODY has been reading Iain M Bank's Culture novels !!

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: Culture AI General Systems Vessels

      No shit Shirley

  21. Phukov Andigh Bronze badge

    scraping off the residue?

    its a concrete Zamboni for pad repair and prep :)

  22. BobC

    Let's look at what's there...

    1. There are 4 pistons, which can only engage with the 4 landing legs on the Falcon 9 core.

    2. There are exposed cables on the robot, so it's not for "hot" use: The core must at least be vented (perhaps a minute after touchdown).

    3. The robot must be mobile. That may seem obvious from the umbilical, but it's wheels (or treads) aren't visible. It likely moves very slowly.

    Add it all up, and it seems the robot's purpose is to move freshly-landed cores.

    But move them where? Why do this?

    For the trip to port, it would seem best to have the core at the precise center of the barge to minimize combined pitch and roll motion. So the robot could be used to center-up a core after an off-center landing. But there have been no cores toppling over on the way home after an off-center landing, so while this use seems possible, it can't be the primary use of the robot.

    As others have said, it makes sense to use a robot if another core is on its way to the barge. A robot is far cheaper than building (and managing, maintaining, operating) additional barges! Plus, landed cores are quite light: Shifting them to the end of the barge won't significantly affect it's trim, and I suspect the barge has floodable compartments to manage trim with high accuracy.

    The key complication is if the second core landing fails: Two cores could be lost instead of one. So, to me, the robot indicates SpaceX's very high confidence in nailing every single landing, no matter how crowded the barge may be with previously landed cores.

    Even if the cores aren't from the same Falcon Heavy mission! What if both SpaceX pads have flights on the same or sequential days? It would make huge sense to keep the barge out there either until it is full, or there is a break in the launch schedule.

    Remember, SpaceX production plans allow for at least two launches per week. And that number EXCLUDES reflights, which could increase the launch rate by at least 50%. If we assume most/all are at Canaveral, then three launches per week with most cores being recovered is way more than a single barge can handle, unless that single barge can handle multiple landings before returning to port.

    Now, let's look again at the case of handling a pair of Falcon Heavy cores. I think this scenario is less likely due to the time needed to permit a core to cool and vent prior to being moved. Nobody wants to be shuttling armed bombs across the deck! Even a minor mishap could take the barge out of commission for the next Falcon Heavy core, which is likely less than a minute behind the first.

    The robot's most likely use seems to be to support multiple recoveries for multiple missions over a period of days, perhaps up to a week.

    1. BobC

      Re: Let's look at what's there...

      Geez, I saw the treads, but assumed they weren't mobile enough to permit the robot to get into position precisely enough. Clearly, they're what's needed to carry the load.

      The marks on the barge deck indicate wheels are in use somewhere, but perhaps not on this robot, though there isn't anything else on the deck (during the photo, at least) that could make those marks.

      Perhaps small (hidden) wheels to move and position the robot, with treads to move when loaded?

      1. Hero Protagonist

        Re: Let's look at what's there...

        "there isn't anything else on the deck (during the photo, at least) that could make those marks."

        The conspicuous yellow wheeled equipment on the right side of the photo would be a likely suspect.

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Let's look at what's there...

        "though there isn't anything else on the deck (during the photo, at least) that could make those marks."

        I saw a bloody great big yellow JCB.

    2. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: Let's look at what's there...


      Given the limited space on the deck and the spread of landing points seen in the landings so far I doubt they'd have enough confidence to land more than one core on the same deck. Nor would I suspect they'd want to due to vibration/noise damage to the core already on the deck when a next one comes down. Do not underestimate just how much damage acoustics from a rocket engine can do. It's one of the main problems to solve in silo launched ICBMs for instance. Without mitigation they would shake themselves to bits before leaving the silo.

      As mentioned before SpaceX has noticed the first stage has a tendency to "walk" across the deck in rough seas between the landing and the welding crew getting there to weld it to the deck. The stage doesn't stay where it lands, so one could end up taking a topple after a successful landing. Next to that there is also the problem that the stage is never really centred on the deck after the landing and there is no provisions on the barge to move it to the centre (or to the edge of the deck to hoist it onto a support ship to clear the barge). Thus it makes perfect sense to design something that can move the core to the centre of the ship and hold it there until the support crew can swoop in to weld it to the deck or transfer the core to a support vessel. My guess is transfer to a support vessel is actually the long term plan, so that the barge can stay out at sea while the much faster moving support vessel shuttles the first stages back to port)

      For falcon heavy the centre core will either not be recovered or if it is it will land MUCH further out than the booster cores. By the time the centre core stage separates it'll be moving at probably about 1.5 km/s, so it takes some serious burning to get it back to a barge the booster cores can reach. (But as said before, the booster cores are planned to return to the LZ pads at the spacecentre) More likely they'll have a barge much further out, so the centre core can use the atmosphere do some of the breaking and stay on a mostly ballistic trajectory.

      Then again, I'm not a rocket scientist. I just play one on Kerbin.

    3. brainbone

      Re: Let's look at what's there...

      > 1. There are 4 pistons, which can only engage with the 4 landing legs on the Falcon 9 core.

      I suspect they engage similar to the hold-down clamps used during a launch, holding the body, not the legs.

      > 3. [...] but it's wheels (or treads) aren't visible. [...]

      To the left and right of center there appears to be treads.

      > Add it all up, and it seems the robot's purpose is to move freshly-landed cores.

      My guess is that it's to stabilize the landed booster stage during transport, possibly using electromagnets to secure the robot to the deck.

  23. Mugs

    Rat Thing

    Assuming it's powered by a radioisotope battery with AI from a dog, it's probably a Rat Thing from Snow Crash. The kennel is for thermal management - useful to have all that sea as a heat sink.

  24. Geoffrey W

    Almost completely off topic but...I have somehow overlooked/failed/avoided reading any Iain (with or without M) Banks' books but feel I really do need to read at least one and see where that leads; Where to start?

    Are his M. books SF, while his !M. books are other?

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      "Are his M. books SF, while his !M. books are other?"

      Yes. But, like you, that's as much as I know. Considering my large SF collection, I really ought to get some, but like you, it's where to start.

  25. Sandy Scott

    Iain M Bank books

    I've loved everything I've read so far from Iain M Banks, but "The Use of Weapons" stands out above other others as an absolute materpiece, with one of the greatest twists ever written. It's one of the least sci-fi-ey of them, with less focus on the technology. If you love that side of Sci-Fi, maybe try "Matter" first.

    I haven't read any of the Non-SF, but I've heard that "The Wasp Factory" is considered a modern classic.

    1. DocJames

      Re: Iain M Bank books

      Agree Use of Weapons best first "M" book.

      The wasp factory, song of stone, whit, the crow road or the business are all good first choices for the none SF books. His last (the quarry) I thought was weak and insufficiently edited/revised; not surprising given his imminent death. The steep approach to Garbadale I think is poor compared to the others. I enjoyed canal dreams (actually that would be fine as a first one too albeit now dated) and espadair street (very Scottish; very 90s music-y).

      I've not read dead air, complicity or stonemouth. And I'm sure there's a few I've missed.

      (I read quite a lot)

      1. Geoffrey W

        Re: Iain M Bank books

        Isn't "Use of Weapons" book 3 or 4 of the Culture series? Can the series be meaningfully read out of sequence? The Culture books seem to be his masterwork so I guess Culture book 1 is where to start.

      2. Vic

        Re: Iain M Bank books

        The wasp factory, song of stone, whit, the crow road or the business are all good first choices for the none SF books

        The Wasp Factory is a marvellous book. Quite shocking in places.

        I hated Song of Stone with a passion...


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