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Pneubotics, a San Francisco-based startup, is creating inflatable robots that they hope will be safer and more versatile than those currently used in manufacturing. They hope these robots will be able to be used in areas closer to humans in fields such as construction, warehousing, and agriculture.
Pneubotics was founded by Kevin Albert and Saul Griffith. The company creates inflatable hands that can shake a human hand and a red tentacle called Elephant Trunk that can wrap around a person. The tentacle does not have joints or a skeleton. It is made mostly of heavy-duty nylon cloth with a main shaft surrounded by chambers that curve when it is inflated.
About 1.6 million robots are currently in use, but their growth has been limited because most consist of dangerous claws attached to metal arms. Rigid robots need to be strong to do their jobs, but they are also inherently dangerous. They need an envelope, or a space around them that is free of obstructions, to avoid injuring humans.
Rigid robots can be made safer by adding compliance, or the ability to give way when they meet resistance, through specialty motors and expensive sensors. Inflatable robots have built-in compliance. They can conform to the environment and move out of the way of obstacles.
Rigid robots are relatively weak pound-for-pound. They can generally only move one-tenth to one-fifth of their weight. Pneubotics’ inflatable arm, however, can move up to five times its own weight.
Robots helped double labor productivity in the manufacturing sector from 1990 to 2010, but there were much smaller increases in productivity in the transportation, warehousing, and service industries, in part because it was dangerous to use robots. Their combination of safety and strength means that inflatable robots could potentially be used in more industries than rigid ones.
Compliant materials can also benefit from improvements in computing power. Control algorithms calculate gas dynamics and material strain 1,000 times per second. The drop in the price of microprocessors has improved the performance of inflatable robots.
Pneubotics plans to produce a low-cost lifting robot that can be used for logistics, manufacturing, and mechanical applications in as little as a year.