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An Engineering Droid is a robot designed to handle routine maintenance and repair.
- It is a civilian robot and an Engineering Droid.
Software can automate many but not all tasks aboard a ship. Some tasks require manipulators not attached to the ship. Engineering droids are an attempt to solve this automation challenge at a lower technology level than needed for fully conscious artificial intelligence.
As they are meant to serve on ships and stations where the computers might already be taxed, an engineering droid has its own CPU, programmed with and equipped with tools for one of four general skill sets:
- Base (general mechanical capability, also the best version to maintain power plants)
- Interplanetary (maneuver drives and software diagnostics, using their CPU to examine other CPUs that may be malfunctioning)
- Jump (jump drives; their programming tends to also make them capable at astrogation)
- Life (life support, also capable as a medic)
Some engineering droid sets break down their skills along different lines. Higher technology level robots that can perform two, three, or all four of these roles (or equivalent for different classifications of engineering droid) in the same chassis are, by definition, not engineering droids.
Each type takes some time to familiarize itself with a new ship or station (larger ones take more familiarization), but after that can serve as a replacement for an engineer of its specialization (or, depending on specialization, another crew position). They require maintenance, but a base model engineering droid can maintain other droids (though not itself, so a minimum recommended package is two base model engineering droids). While they are capable of routine operations, if faced with unusual or unprecedented cases, they tend to fall back to a diagnostic mode to figure out a solution. Taking an hour to figure out the right replacement gasket (the first time that one failed since familiarization) is acceptable when performing routine maintenance, but is a distinct problem for combat operations.
The basic concept of replacing crew with robots dates back to the invention of robots. The very word "robot", in Anglic, comes from a pre-spaceflight Terran word for "forced labor". Every major race and most minor races have a history of replacing people with machines, as it was figured out how to do so.
Theory is one thing; practice is another. It is not until TL-10 that "virtual crew" programs begin to appear, able to automate most of the crew roles that can be performed from a ship's bridge, and even then at a low skill level. TL-11 sees dedicated robots able to handle most of the remaining tasks, albeit in very specific silos. All-in-one droids able to handle many such tasks come even later.
Not all cultures develop engineering droids. Vilani distrust of such automation makes these rare in the Third Imperium, for example. Where they are developed, they are expensive enough that economics and mission requirements dictate their use. They do not require staterooms, life support, officers or medics; between that and saving an engineer's salary, they can pay for themselves, but only over a period of many years. From a pure economic perspective, they are generally only seen as worthwhile investments for transports and tankers unlikely to see combat or any unusual situations for 10 years or more (though in many cases only 7 years, sometimes only 5, are necessary). They are more often employed when non-economic factors are in play, such as for ships that carry cargo their crew must never tell people about, even long after delivery.
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