I'm really excited about inflatable robots... they have the potential to be low-cost, lightweight, extremely powerful, and yet "human safe" -- ie. perfect for many robotics applications. With that in mind, I would like to introduce you to two new (breakout) inflatable robots: a 15-foot-long walking robot (a Pneubot named Ant-Roach) and a complete, inflatable robot arm (plus hand). Both of these robots were developed by Otherlab as part of their "pneubotics" project (in collaboration with Meka Robotics and Manu Prakash at Stanford University), with some funding from DARPA's Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program. These robots use textile-based, inflatable actuators that contract upon inflation into specially-designed shapes to effect motion. Since these robots are built out of lightweight fabric-and-air structural members and powered via pneumatics or hydraulics, they exhibit large strength-to-weight ratios. For example, Ant-Roach is less than 70 lbs and can probably support up to 1000 lbs; the inflatable robot arm is less than 2 lbs and can lift a few hundred pounds at 50-60 psi. Be sure to read on for details and lots of videos!
To quote Otherlab's recent blog post:
Here is the Otherlab’s 15 foot inflatable walking robot, the Ant-Roach. We thought this conceptual elephant looked more like a cross between an anteater and a cockroach. The goal of building the Ant-Roach was to demonstrate the carrying capacity and high strength-to-weight ratios possible with inflatable structures.
Ant-Roach relies on a number of fabric, inflatable actuators (left) and pneumatic piping (middle) to move. During my conversation with Saul, he told me that Ant-Roach weighs in at less than 70 lbs -- making it human-transportable (right) -- and yet it can probably support up to 1000 lbs (making a couple-person payload no problem).
Videos of the robot in operation:
There are a lot of additional, supplementary videos here (below).
With a little refinement, I could imagine several applications for these actuators beyond just robotics. Heck, you could just augment those huge, inflatable water toys with actuation.
Alternatively, just turn the Pneubot Elephant into an amusement park ride:
Note to my (now-former) labmates: You guys need to hurry up and get married if you want me to bring a live elephant to your wedding procession in India. If not... I might just bring one of these instead!
To quote from Otherlab's blog post:
Otherlab’s “pneubotics” program has produced the world’s first inflatable, robotic arm. We’re refining fabrication techniques and design, but this prototype demonstrates the potential strength and dexterity of this low-cost, safe robotics technology.
According to my conversations with Saul, the arm alone (sans valves and air supply) weighs a mere 2 lbs and is still able to lift several hundred pounds (eg. a person) with just 50-60 psi. He tells me that it can handily defeat a human at arm wrestling.
Much like Ant-Roach, the inflatable arm is made from a series of fabric "pockets" that expand and contract when inflated to create motion. The same applies for the hand:
Inflatable robots have many desirable properties. Because they are constructed from fabric and basic pneumatic parts (eg. an air supply, valves, and tubing), they can potentially be very low-cost. Furthermore, they possess high strength-to-weight ratios owing to the strength of pneumatics and the mostly air-and-fabric structural members. Plus, they are naturally compliant, which makes them (at least somewhat) human-safe. Of course, there are drawbacks...
Otherlab seems like a natural birthplace for inflatable robotics. Otherlab (co)founder and MacArther Award Winner, Saul Griffith, has a long history of developing low-cost "smart material" solutions in various problem domains: low-cost lenses using the boundary conditions of an inflatable membrane (left), high-strength fabrics for kite surfing and kite-based power (a la Makani Power), and more recently (at Otherlab) "computational manufacturing" to build complex 3D shapes (middle and right).
Incidentally, Otherlab is a "private R&D company" -- a lean, think-tank-like organization with a healthy combination of hard science, engineering, creativity, and entrepreneurship. They are a canonical example of the business (model) I someday hope to co-found (or at least be a part of).
For some related work... I recall reading about a soft, inflatable robot by Chris Atkeson (PI) and crew at the CMU Quality of Life Technology Center. It seems they are also interested in inflatable robots for safe human-robot interaction. From the CNET photo-op:
Soft Robots are a project from the Quality of Life Technology Center designed to help seniors and people with mobility problems.
Soft, inflatable arms like this one can manipulate objects weighing up to 500 grams (1.1 pounds) and assist with tasks like feeding, dressing, and transfers from bed to wheelchair.
It appears that the lead student on their project, Siddharth Sanan, recently interned at Otherlab.