These squishy robots are designed to survive falls, save lives

The spindly bots carry video cameras and electronic sensors to gather information about conditions on the ground before emergency crews go in.
Image: Squishy robotics
Squishy robots at a simulated earthquake disaster site.Lee-Huang Chen / Squishy Robotics
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By Tom Metcalfe

From mowing lawns and cleaning windows to lending a hand to astronauts aboard the International Space Station, robots are being designed to do an ever-expanding set of tasks.

Now, engineers in California have come up with a lightweight robot designed to be literally dropped into disaster zones, where it can gather potentially life-saving information about conditions on the ground.

The hardy little bot, about two feet across, carries video cameras and electronic sensors within a ball-shaped lattice of rods and cables that cushion the sensitive gear from sharp blows — like smacking into the ground after falling from a great height.

The idea is that the shape-shifting device can be deployed from aircraft flying over areas hit by earthquakes, wildfires or spills of hazardous chemicals and then beam the information to first-responders, so they know exactly what they’ll face before they go in. Currently, that sort of information tends to be gathered by first responders themselves.

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

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

The company is also developing a mobile version of the squishy robot that can move along the ground, propelled by small electric motors that shift the rods and cables to change the bot’s center of gravity.

“It's not going to be fast, and we are not designed for speed,” Agogino said. “But the advantage is it can go over rough terrain. It can shift its shape to go between boulders and rocks,” using what she called a “punctuated rolling motion.”

Agogino said she was inspired to create the squishy robot while working with researchers from 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 tough enough to be dropped onto Titan’s surface from an orbiting spacecraft.

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

Squishy robots are now being field-tested by fire departments in Los Angeles and in Texas, according to Agogino, with the first commercial version possibly available by the end of this year.

Greg Price, a division director for the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., expressed enthusiasm for the squishy robot technology, saying it could enhance the “situation awareness” of first responders headed to disaster zones.

“Situation awareness is paramount,” said Price, who heads up the department's science and technology program for first responders. “If you have chemical sensors, or whatever the sensors are that you are looking for, or a camera for situation awareness … that can save lives, absolutely.”

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