Spherical Tensegrity Robots: The New Frontier in Disaster Response by NASA

Spherical Tensegrity Robots: The New Frontier in Disaster Response by NASA ...

The tense sensor robots from Squishy Robotics help first responders decide their way to a disaster scene. These robots are shown here during a subway attack scenario session at the 2021 Unmanned Tactical Application Conference.

Squishy Robotics Inc. is working on impact-resistant, spherical robots, which can be used in any situation, from disaster relief to space exploration. These robots are designed to disseminate impact across their skeletal structure, making them ideal for rough terrain or hazardous environments. Sensors are highly configurable, enabling first responders to detect hazards such as toxic gas leaks or wildfires.

When Dr. Alice Agogino realized her NASA-funded research might extend to terrestrial applications.

Agogino believed her robots, equipped with the correct sensors, might track fires, crashes, and other accidents in order to assist first responders in assessing dangers, such as toxic gas leaks, and preparing their route.

We thought, wow, if we can do this on the Moon, we might do it on Earth and save some lives," said Agogino, the director of the Berkeley Emergent Space Tensegrities Lab at the University of California at Berkeley.

Squishy Robotics Inc., located in Berkeley, California, is a company that develops impact-resistant, customizable robots for public safety, military, and industrial purposes.

Squishy Robotics' tensegrity robots are transported by a drone as part of a training exercise with Southern Manatee Fire and Rescue in Florida. Credit: Southern Manatee Fire and Rescue

Agogino's robots resemble ball-shaped rods and elastic cables. According to the principle of tensegrity, the force is distributed across the network.

R. Buckminster Fuller, an architect who popularized geodesic domes, coined the term tensegrity in the 1960s. Both are tensegrity structures.

The ability of these structures to withstand the impact of a prolonged drop is particularly fascinating for NASA.

In 2014, the agency awarded Agogino and her UC Berkeley lab Early Stage Innovations (ESI) funding to investigate tense robotic mobility using gas thrusters.

The $500,000, multi-year, proof-of-concept ESI grants aim to expedite the development of novel space technologies that have significant potential. The program supports academic researchers working on space-related science and technology.

The stationary robot is light enough to be integrated with most commercial drones. Credit: Squishy Robotics Inc.

Agogino and her colleagues were attempting to construct probes that might be able to drop from a planetary orbit or larger spacecraft, stand up to the drop carrying delicate sensors, and then roll and jump over rough terrain to perform missions and research on other planets.

Terry Fong, the head roboticist in the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley, said 'Think about the Mars Curiosity and Perseverance rovers.'

Fong, who was NASA's technical representative for Agogino's grant, explained that the rovers had to be gently lowered to Mars' surface using the elaborate Sky Crane system.

"The robot itself is the landing gear with tensegrity robots," Fong said. "It might survive a serious fall from a very high spot and continue to go."

Agogino robots travel flat when they unfurl, allowing the instruments and sensors to be suspended in the center of the room, protected from the effects of a fall.

"So, you save on throwaway mass," Fong said. "To launch mass into space, you need more of it to be used beyond landing, as well as on the surface with scientific instrumentation and other payloads."

NASA has also investigated tensegrity robots as an Earth science application, which might detect, for instance, a glacier that is about to rupture into the ocean.

“That’s the sort of situation where you wouldn’t want to send a person, because it’s extremely risky,” Fong said. “You would have a super instrument positioning system if you could.”

Tensegrity robots offer a safer approach to placing delicate instruments in difficult-to-reach areas on Earth or on other planets. That's how Squishy Robotics works.

In a process known as customer discovery, Agogino and her team interviewed 300 first responders.

Squishy Robotics has now placed miniaturized chemical gas sensors inside the tensegrity robot, which can be dropped by aircraft, to measure temperature before firefighters enter the area. Currently, the company only offers stationary robots, but Agogino and her team are developing mobile versions.

The information collected by these robots can help firefighters make informed decisions about whether or not to wear hazardous material gear, which can add up to an hour of prep time, which is only worthwhile if it is necessary.

Squishy Robotics has established reseller agreements with several of the country's largest fire departments, including Southern Manatee Fire and Rescue in Florida, the Tulsa Fire Department in Oklahoma, and the San Jose Fire Department in California.

Agogino's tenacious robots might also assist in the defusing of bombs or monitoring gas and electric lines.

Squishy Robotics is developing a new area of expertise in wildfire prevention. Tensegrity robots might monitor high-risk areas, assist authorities in responding to concerns, and ensure that smaller fires are completely extinguished.

"It's critical that wildfires be detected early," Agogino adds, "because so many of the wildfires that have become raging firestorms might have been prevented if they hadn't been discovered early.

Agogino has been emeritus since she left Berkeley in December, allowing her to devote more time to Squishy Robotics.

NASA's Fong said he was pleased to see Agogino dissect the tense robot technology. "We believe these robots can serve unique purposes for space," he added. "She obviously saw a way to have a significant impact on Earth."

NASA's Spinoff publication focuses on NASA technologies that have evolved into commercial goods and services, highlighting the broad benefits of America's investment in its space program.

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