These soft robots are designed to survive falls, save lives.


By Tom Metcalfe

From cutting grbad and cleaning windows to lending a helping hand to astronauts on board the International Space Station, robots are being designed to make a set of tasks ever wider.

Now, engineers in California have devised a lightweight robot designed to be literally thrown into disaster areas, where it can gather potentially saving information about conditions on the ground.

The sturdy, small bot, about two feet wide, carries video cameras and electronic sensors inside a ball-shaped network of rods and cables that cushion sensitive equipment from sharp beats, such as hitting the ground after falling from a great height.

The idea is that the shape-changing device can be deployed from aircraft that fly over areas affected by earthquakes, forest fires or spills of hazardous chemicals and then transmit the information to the first responders, so they know exactly what they will face before to enter. Currently, this type of information tends to be collected by the first responders.

"We believe it can save lives," said Alice Agogino, an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley and CEO of Squishy Robotics, a Berkeley-based company that she founded in 2017 to commercialize the technology.

Agogino said that the two-pound robot had been tested by dropping it from a height of 600 feet, and that it survived the fall without suffering any damage. The device should be able to survive falls from even greater heights, he added.

The company is also developing a mobile version of the soft robot that can move on the ground, powered by small electric motors that move rods and cables to change the center of gravity of the robot.

"It's not going to be fast, and we're not designed for speed," Agogino said. "But the advantage is that it can go over rough terrain. She can change her shape to go between rocks and rocks, "using what she called a" punctuated rolling movement. "

Agogino said he was inspired to create the soft robot while working with researchers at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, on a robotic probe to explore Saturn's moon Titan. The researchers were working to build a robot strong enough to be launched over Titan's surface from an orbiting spacecraft.

"I could see all these applications on planet Earth," Agogino said, adding that the original concept is still being developed for space exploration.

Squishy's robots are now being tested in the field by the fire departments of Los Angeles and Texas, according to Agogino, and the first commercial version is likely to be available by the end of this year.

Greg Price, director of the division of the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, DC, expressed his enthusiasm for soft-robot technology and said it could improve the "awareness of the situation" of first responders going to disaster areas.

"Awareness of the situation is paramount," said Price, who heads the department's science and technology program for lifeguards. "If you have chemical sensors, or whatever sensor you are looking for, or a camera for the knowledge of the situation … that can save lives, absolutely."

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