Spherical Robots to the Rescue
Scouting robots designed for space warn first responders of gas leaks, other dangers
Dr. Alice Agogino was researching spherical, skeletal robots that might one day be dropped onto Mars or the Moon to collect information and conduct science experiments, when she realized her NASA-funded technology could have terrestrial benefits as well.
Reading a report on the dangers and high death toll of disaster response, Agogino recognized that her robots, fitted with the right sensors, could gather data at the scenes of fires, crashes, explosions, and other disasters to help first responders assess situational dangers like toxic gas leaks and plan their approach.
“We thought, wow, if we can do this on the Moon, we should be able to do it on planet Earth and save some lives,” said Agogino, director of the Berkeley Emergent Space Tensegrities Lab at the University of California at Berkeley.
She went on to cofound Berkeley, California-based Squishy Robotics Inc. The company makes impact-resistant, customizable robots for public safety, military, and industrial uses.
‘The Robot Itself Is the Landing Gear’
Agogino’s robots look like ball-shaped skeletons made of rods and elastic cables. She describes the structure as “a tension network” – if one of these robots is dropped, the impact is distributed across the whole network, dissipating the force, according to the principle of tensegrity.
The term tensegrity – short for tensile (or tensional) integrity – was coined in the 1960s by architect R. Buckminster Fuller, who popularized geodesic domes, which are also tensegrity structures.
For NASA, the ability of tensegrity robots to withstand the impact of a long drop is especially interesting, as is the ability of these structures to collapse into a small package during travel.
The agency awarded Agogino and her UC Berkeley lab Early Stage Innovations (ESI) funding in 2014 to research tensegrity robot mobility using gas thrusters.
The $500,000, multi-year, proof-of-concept ESI grants aim to accelerate the development of innovative space technologies that have significant potential. The funding is offered through the Space Technology Research Grants program, which supports academic researchers working on space-related science and technology.
Agogino and her team were designing space exploration probes that could drop from a planetary orbit or a larger spacecraft, survive the drop carrying delicate sensors, and then roll and jump over rough terrain to perform missions and scientific monitoring on the Moon and on other planets.
“Think about the Mars Curiosity and Perseverance rovers,” said Terry Fong, chief roboticist in NASA’s Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California.
Fong, who was the NASA-side technical representative for Agogino’s grant, explained that the Mars rovers had to be gently lowered to the planet’s surface with the elaborate Sky Crane system, which was heavy and complicated and used only for the final part of landing on Mars.
“With tensegrity robots, the robot itself is the landing device,” Fong said. “It could survive a fall from very high up and then keep going.”
The tensegrity devices can be folded flat for travel – in fact, that’s how Agogino ships the ones Squishy Robotics sends to customers. Once the robot unfurls, its instruments and sensors are suspended in the center, protected from the impact of a fall or crash.
“So, you save on throwaway mass,” Fong said. “It’s expensive and difficult to launch mass into space, so you want more of it to be used beyond landing, to be used on the surface with scientific instrumentation and other payloads.”
Informing the Decision to Suit Up
NASA also researched Earth science applications for tensegrity robots, which might be used to monitor, for instance, a glacier that’s about to break off into the ocean.
“That’s the kind of place you just would not want to, or could not, send a person to because it’s very risky,” Fong said. “The whole surface could collapse. With a structure that could survive a drop but still be mobile afterwards, you would have basically a super instrument positioning system.”
On Earth or on other planets, tensegrity robots offer a relatively easy way to place delicate instruments into difficult-to-reach areas. Indeed, that’s the principle behind Squishy Robotics.
Agogino and her team began speaking to fire departments and public safety officials in a process known as customer discovery. “At this point, we’ve interviewed around 300 first responders,” she says. “And it turns out there is a real need with hazardous material emergencies.”
For these customers, Squishy Robotics now puts miniaturized chemical gas sensors inside the tensegrity robot structure that can be dropped by drone, helicopter, or fixed-wing aircraft, to take readings in an area before firefighters go in. Currently, the company only offers stationary robots, but Agogino and her team are working on mobile models as well.
The data these robots collect can inform firefighters’ decisions about whether to wear hazardous material gear, which can add up to an hour of prep time – a delay that’s only worthwhile if it’s necessary.
From Firefighting to Preventing Fires
Squishy Robotics has worked with some of the 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. The company has also established reseller agreements with a number of distributors.
Agogino’s tensegrity robots also have military uses, such as helping to defuse bombs, and industrial applications, primarily helping to monitor gas and electric lines.
Wildfire prevention is another emerging area for Squishy Robotics. Tensegrity robots can monitor high-risk areas, help authorities respond to reports, and ensure that smaller fires have been fully extinguished.
“The early detection of wildfires is critical,” Agogino says, “because so many of the wildfires that have become raging firestorms could have been prevented if they had been caught early when the fire started.”
Agogino is now emeritus, having retired in December 2022 from Berkeley, a move that allows her to spend more time on Squishy Robotics.
NASA’s Fong said he was happy to see Agogino was able to spin off the tensegrity robot technology.
“We believe these robots could serve unique purposes for space,” he said. “She obviously saw a way to also have a major impact on Earth.”