Berkeley startup develops squishy robots to aid disaster rescue

Squishy Robotics, Inc./Courtesy

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Squishy Robotics, a Berkeley startup, is beta testing its squishy shape-shifting, sensory robots, with potential applications to provide critical information about disaster zones.

Structurally, these robots might appear frail, but their crisscrossed cable structure is designed to withstand enormous drops of up to 600 feet. Squishy Robotics, a business supported by Berkeley startup incubator Skydeck, is currently collaborating with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, or LACoFD, and the Houston Fire Department, or HFD, to beta test the robots.

Squishy Robotics CEO and campus professor of mechanical engineering Alice Agogino said in an email that the robots are being developed for a number of applications, including disaster rescue, remote monitoring and space exploration.

“The inspiration for starting Squishy Robotics was to apply this technology to first responder applications on planet Earth … (to) provide rapid eyes, ears and sensory information on the ground for disaster response,” said Agogino in an email.

There are two platforms of squishy robots: the Stationary Robot and the Mobile Robot. According to Agogino, the purpose of the Stationary Robot is to withstand drops from great heights while protecting the cameras and sensors at the robot’s center.

The Mobile Robot, on the other hand, was developed with the goal of traversing rugged terrain in disaster zones, according to Agogino. The Mobile Robot moves across different surfaces by slackening the wires that make up its structure. Slackening or tightening these wires causes the robot to roll or spin in the intended direction.

The Stationary Robot has endured testing with first responders from drones at 400 feet, as well as a helicopter drop in collaboration with LACoFD from 600 feet. According to Agogino, the Stationary Robot is ready for presale.

The inspiration for the robots came from research scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center, who set their eyes on a particular “tensegrity” toy called Skwish. NASA researchers Adrian Agogino and Vytas SunSpiral received a grant from NASA to further develop the applications of tensegrity technology to space.

Alice Agogino emphasized the potential application of the robots to Earth — in collaboration with LACoFD and HFD, Squishy Robots is furthering this objective.

The robots’ main applications are aimed at disaster response, followed by commercial and utility electrical failure monitoring. According to Alice Agogino, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has shown interest in using the robots for monitoring wildfires. Military first response is another potential area of application, she added in an email.

The robots may even be used for delivery services, smart home appliances or educational applications, according to the Squishy Robotics website.

“If we could drop from an orbit for space exploration, safely survive the drop and walk away, why couldn’t we help first responders by doing the same thing,” Alice Agogino said in an email.

Contact Sasha Langholz at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LangholzSasha‏.