The film “Big Hero 6,” which was released in 2014, featured an inflatable robot called Baymax that worked in a healthcare setting. In the future, robots like Baymax could be a reality.
Most robots are solid machines used in factories to grip and hold objects and to carry out tasks such as assembling, painting, and welding. Manufacturers often choose to use robots since they are accurate, reliable, and can work around the clock.
Robots have been used in surgery for over a decade, but they occupy a niche. Robots may be used in other aspects of medical care in the future, such as lifting patients on beds and helping them get to the bathroom. They are looking attractive to some hospital managers who are under pressure to provide essential services but have limited funds to pay staff.
Technical issues still need to be worked out before robots can be used for more roles in hospitals. Safety is a primary concern. In factories, robots are often kept separate from humans to prevent accidents.
One possible solution is to use inflatable robots. The forces generated by inflating devices with air can be strong enough to lift objects or people. Since inflatable robots are soft and lightweight, the potential for accidents and injuries is low.
Inflatable robots can change shape as they inflate. By controlling the inflation rates of different parts of the robot, a finger can grip an object without the need for hinges, grippers, rotational cuffs, or a control system. A research group at Harvard has designed soft gripper arms that can pick up fruit and eggs without any mechanical moving parts.
Inflatable robots require a pump to fill them with air. One way to get around this requirement could be to use a chemical reaction similar to the one used to inflate air bags in vehicles. The reaction is not reversible. Until the problem is solved, soft robots in hospitals will probably be used on stationary patients and inflated with pumps.
Researchers are working on inflatable suits for rehabilitation that can fit around injured limbs and joints and help patients develop muscle strength and flexibility by inflating and deflating. These technologies could also help with bed sores and assist patients in sitting up.