While this Disney film has a powerful and lovable protagonist with awesome animation features, don’t write off the effectiveness of inflatable robotics as mere fantasy. Thanks to DARPA, they’ve entered the real world. (1)
In reality, Baymax was inspired by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Maximum Mobility Manipulation (M3) program. (2)
Soft robotics is a new field of scientific research pioneered at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). (3)
The benefit to robots made of soft materials such as fabrics, balloons, and light plastics is that they are lighter weight and cost less to make than robots made of metal.
The State of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon
Carnegie Mellon’s The Robotic Institute (4) leads the way in innovative research in robotics. The program employs 50 full-time faculty specializing in state-of-the-art technology in space robotics, computer graphics, medical robotics, computer vision, artificial intelligence, and related fields. The program doesn’t just conduct research, but it also offers academic programs in robotics.
CMU is also home of the Soft Robotics and Bionics Lab (5), which conducts ongoing research on biomedical robotic systems, wearable rehabilitation devices, prosthetics, soft surgical tools, and more. Among the innovations currently being tested, the list includes artificial skin sensors and artificial human muscles. There may someday soon be a real Six Million Dollar Man. (6)
If all of that isn’t enough, there is plenty going on at CMU’s Soft Mechanic Lab. (7)
Carnegie Mellon isn’t the only place where soft robotics research is taking place. In 2011, Otherlab, with Meka Robotics, introduced a “pneubot” named Ant-Roach and developed an inflatable robot arm and hand. (8) Ant-Roach gets its name from its shape, which creators say is like a cross between an anteater and a cockroach. In essence, it’s a huge walking inflatable insect.
While Otherlab is a private research and development company operating as a for-profit entity, the soft robotics limb that inspired Disney’s Big Hero 6 was created by Siddharth Sanan, a student at CMU working on his doctoral thesis. (9)
Earlier in the year, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a soft robotic fish that moves like a real fish. (10)
All of this might have you wondering, what are the practical applications of such innovations. If you really want to know, with a 3-D printer you could print your own sex toys. (11)
Create Your Own Prosthetics or Robot-Servant
Actually, there are quite a few practical applications where inflatable robots can be useful. When 3-D printing becomes as common as the laserjet, all you’ll need is a soft robotics toolkit (12) and you’ll be able to make your own household items, from artificial limbs to your brand of inflatable house pets.
The visionaries see open design platforms becoming as revolutionary as open source software, allowing home-based engineers the same level of freedom as home-based Internet entrepreneurs.
There is still some ways to go in certain areas of soft robotics. For instance, researchers still are unsure about how to achieve sensing, actuation, and control in soft-bodied robots. (13)
There are also still questions to be answered about materials, tools, and methods of fabrication. Nevertheless, inflatable robotics are as real today as Disney animation, and it’s a matter of time before Baymax is walking your neighborhood.
References & Image Credits:
(2) DARPA M3 Program
(3) Carnegie Mellon University
(4) The Robotics Institute
(5) Soft Robotics and Bionics Lab
(7) Soft Mechanic Lab
(9) Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
(10) MIT News
(11) Popular Science
(12) Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
(13) IEEE RAS Technical Committee on Soft Robotics
(14) Carnegie Melon University
(15) DARPA: Image of Soft Robot