NASA's new inflatable robot might go places humans cant
Going where no man can go is the essence of robotics.
The humans want the robots to do the dirty, dangerous and risky work…also not have to pay them wages. Hopefully the extra money actually goes to humans that need it, but that’s besides the point.
Meet and greet NASA's inflatable space robot, King Louie. Yeah hes friendly and harmless. Its actually a NASA funded grant program to the great students at Brigham Young University Mechanical Engineering Department. We try to keep it simple here.
Yes it’s the first King Louie and not the 3rd or 4th but hey, he seems friendly and inflatable. Its actually named after the Monkey in The Jungle Book...yeah this guy..we can definitely see the resemblance between the two.
The idea behind an inflatable robot is that in space, the space capsules and equipment can be fragile and sensitive to hard surfaces aka rigid robots. You don’t want to puncture the space capsule and suck all the air oxygen out so a inflatable soft robot will not harm the equipment. If it hits the hull of the space shuttle, oh well that’s not even going to leave a mark.
King Louie is made out of inflatable bags and surrounded by a really strong fabric shell. The robot moves it limbs by inflating or deflating sections of its body. Sounds very tricky but it really is actually..very tricky.
The challenge is sensing where the arm of the robot actually is. Conventional rigid robots are equipped with encoders at the joints and then just assumes the rest of the part is rigid. It’s a little more tricky with a soft robot where we sort of have to guess where the arm is when we inflate it with air.
Another perk of an inflatable robot is that it can be transported in its deflated state to save space and them aired up when its ready to perform its function in space. This will save cost and space in payload systems and also allow other extra crucial equipment and supplies to be transported as well. An “air” robot can also save a lot of weight and we all know weight is like the number one parameter to engineer anything that flies, in this case, NASA rocket. Actually, these days NASA contracts SpaceX to send their stuff up because SpaceX found considerably cheaper way to send stuff into space. See NASA DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) project.
Besides space, the inflatable King Louie robot or inflatable robots in general, have tremendous advantages on Earth as well. These soft robots can operate in sensitive environments such as hospitals, home assistance and also rescue missions because of they are easy to transport. Humans can bring the robot easily into tight or hard to get to spaces and help someone that might be in need of assistance.
King Louie is still in the development phase so it will take some time but without a doubt, our friends at NASA have cracked something and we will be sure to see more inflatable robots in the future.
For now, we will leave you with a couple other “inflatable” bots.
Saildrone – A company in southern California builds drones that can sail the oceans autonomously to collect all sorts of data for research. These mini drone ships can be at sea collecting data for over 8 months because they are powered by wind and solar. Super cool!
And then there's Pneubotics. They made King Louie's brother.
Plug time – Micro.
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