Sometimes you don’t need to be the strongest, most acrobatic robot on the block, you just need to be squishy. A new round robo is just that, capable of being dropped from 180 meters (600 feet) high and rolling into action. The new technology isn't merely entertaining to watch, it has the potential to save lives.
Designed by engineers at UC Berkeley and Squishy Robotics, the robot could be equipped with sensors and dropped into disaster zones to provide crucial intel from the ground, such as whether there is poisonous gas.
The robot is made of contracting cables in the shape of a soccer ball – no legs involved for leg-shattering reasons. The wires can be tightened or slackened to move it in whichever direction its controllers desire. However, to do this, the team needed to engineer tiny motors capable of manipulating these cables and withstanding sky-high drops.
The “tensegrity structure” allows it to “shapeshift”, according to the team, and maneuver between rocks. The engineers even said it could be shot out of a cannon and be none the worse for wear. Now that’s quite the circus skill.
“Our rapidly deployable mobile sensor robots are designed to save lives, reduce costs and risks and increase effectiveness of emergency response,” said Alice Agogino, a UC Berkeley mechanical engineering professor, in a statement. “They can survive a high drop into a disaster zone and provide life-saving information to first responders. They can also work as co-robots with their human partners on the ground when they arrive on the scene.”
The design was not initially meant for Earthly wars and destruction, but instead as a prototype in collaboration with NASA Ames that could plummet from a spacecraft and explore Saturn’s moon, Titan. Although it can’t be dropped from orbit at this time, it holds potential for future missions on Earth.
“We are still working with NASA on a space probe, but as excited as I am about space robots, I was motivated to apply this technology to Earthly applications when I saw a report by the Red Cross and Red Crescent that 400 first responders lost their lives to save others in the last 20 years. Many of these lives could have been saved with better situational awareness before entering disaster zones,” said Agogino. “Our robots get information that first responders need in order to stay safe and respond faster and more effectively."
The Squishy Robotics team is currently working with the Los Angeles County Fire Department – the third largest in the country – to beta test the deployable sensor robots and refine the technology.
"We are delighted to be working with such a large and well-respected fire department," said Squishy Robotics COO Deniz Dogruer in a statement. "The Del Valle Center is a perfect location to work side-by-side with first responders as they train with our robots in simulated emergency situations. Their feedback and advice will be invaluable as we fine-tune our robots to meet the critical needs of first responders.”
The Robot was presented last week at the Techcrunch Robotics + AI Sessions event in Berkeley, California.