squishy robot (Squishy Robotics)

Squishy robots give responders remote insights

Pliant robots that a NASA scientist worked on for exploring other planets have some very real applications right here on Earth -- providing first responders with information about an emergency via edge and cloud computing without putting them in harm’s way.

The devices, called squishy robots, are equipped with cameras that can provide a 360-degree view of an affected area, and they have thermal and chemical sensors for determining heat levels and identifying hazardous materials. What’s more, they have been successfully dropped from drones and helicopters at heights of 400 to 600 feet, respectively.

“They can also be deployed by the first responders when they come in with an emergency vehicle and can be thrown in a remote area while they’re at the perimeter of the site,” said Alice Agogino, cofounder and CEO of Squishy Robotics, a startup out of the SkyDeck accelerator at the University of California at Berkeley. It's important "to get the information as soon as possible to first responders because if there is a hazard in the area, it is dangerous to first responders and people living in the local community.”

The robots are virtually immune to being tossed around because they are tensegrity structures, meaning that none of the rods they’re made of touch one another. That creates a tension that allows the robots to “shape shift,” according to the Squishy Robotics website, without breaking on landing.

“They are the strongest structures you can get with the lightest weight,” Agogino said.

When they land, the robots remain stationary, getting to work collecting imagery and data. Edge computing means they analyze some of the data right then and there and deliver feedback to emergency personnel through their handheld devices. Data collected by the robots will be stored on the cloud where the team can use machine-learning tools to improve analysis, said Agogino, who’s also a mechanical engineering professor at the university.

 She said she hopes that the data collection over time will enable the company to also study trends that could make responders safer.

For instance, the wildfires in California and elsewhere have shown that burning homes release toxic materials, Agogino said. “There are new chemicals that are out there that have not been tracked and correlated with cancer rates and other medical conditions, so that’s an example of the sort of thing that we would be able to do if we could consolidate the data and do machine learning of it.”

The lab is working on two types of robots. One version can be remotely controlled for release from a drone, helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft and is a direct descendant of a product Agogino worked on for NASA to study one of Saturn’s moons. This version has been tested in several areas, including Houston and in California’s Alameda and Los Angeles counties. It’s also undergoing testing now with the New York City Fire Department, Agogino said.

In the lab, her team is building a mobile robot that could “walk around.” They’re also working to make the robots waterproof or water-resistant, which will enable them to be used in floods.

Squishy Robotics is catching the eye of folks outside emergency services. It is working with the military on applications to help the Army, and chemical companies are showing an interest in using the robots to help improve situational awareness should an incident happen at their facilities.

Additionally, communication firms are looking at the robots to provide cellular coverage in remote areas. “Firefighters were hampered in a number of regions because there was little cell coverage where some of the wildfires were in this country, so there’s an interest for first responder communication networks to rapidly deploy Squishy Robotics that can serve as a leapfrog to help create a communication network,” Agogino said.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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