The Robotics Inventors Who Are Trying to Take the ‘Hard’ Out of Hardware - NYTimes.com(Banner Photo: Nicholas Antonio De Lucci for The New York Times.)
Soft, flexible, safe, light weight, and low cost robots used in industrial environments could be a game changer for factories or industrial sites where humans and robots need to engage together. Imagine a soft robot hand that can hold up something for a worker to build on, and then swiftly turn it over for the worker to complete the other side.
Pneubotics Yields Soft Robots
Inside a former organ factory in San Francisco, Della Shea is building a robot with a sewing machine. She works for Pneubotics, one of a growing number of startups designing softer automatons capable of flexible movements—and, perhaps, daily interaction with humans. “Right now our process looks more like tailoring than engineering,” says Pneubotics co-founder Saul Griffith, pointing to the thick vinyl material on the sewing machine operated by Shea, whose official title is “sewboticist.”
“This is no ordinary robot: It’s made of fabric and air rather than steel and motors. Albert, co-founder of the San Francisco startup Pneubotics, is demonstrating how a new generation of robots can be made safer and more versatile — allowing them to move off the factory floor and work in close proximity with humans.”
Inflatable robotics firm develops blow-up hand, elephant-thing
The giant, balloon-like inflatable robot named Baymax in Disney’s Big Hero 6 has its roots in real-world research conducted by iRobot Corporation, Carnegie Mellon University and Otherlab under DARPA’s Maximum Mobility Manipulation (M3) program.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency does some cool stuff. And Disney does some cool stuff. So really, it was inevitable that their forces would unite.
DARPA’s M3 program is creating and demonstrating novel design tools, fabrication methods and control algorithms to make robots more mobile and better able to manipulate objects in their environment. One area of M3 research is fabric-skinned robots that are filled with and manipulated by air.“The M3 program has made great strides in making robots move more naturally like animals or humans move,” said Gill Pratt, DARPA program manager. “Inflatable robots, like the arm developed at Carnegie Mellon, offer unique benefits such as high strength to weight, small size when uninflated, low fabrication cost, and safety when working around human beings.”
The inflatable robot of Big Hero 6 was based on real soft robotics research, like the ones being experimented with at startup Pneubotics.
“We are exceptionally early in soft robotics as a field,” he [Saul Griffith] says in an email. “There is more hype than substance ... there are only maybe three or four interesting demonstrations of unique function and capacity. With those things said, the flexibility, potential low cost, and good match with human scale tasks makes soft robots very attractive.”
Robots with greater flexibility could help in military operations, where level terrain and unobstructed areas are rare, whether as a fully intact robot or as, say, a strap-on arm with a pneumatically controlled hand that could extend the reach, strength or capability of what a person could do.
According to Saul, engineering design has been following Hooke’s Law throughout all of history, but only using the elastic region of the stress-strain curve. Current robot components are heavy and large, limiting speed and motion.Soft / inflatable materials by contrast are lighter, faster and can be remarkably strong.
Pneubotics is an Otherlab Company