Building a real-life Baymax

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Professor Atkeson and his team are working on soft robots to act as caregivers

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The recent animated feature Big Hero 6 is more than a collection of comic book fantasies – there's some hard science behind the soft robots. Baymax, the inflatable robot designed to care for humans who stars in the film may seem as unlikely as a chocolate teapot, but Chris Atkeson, professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon is working on a real life version (minus the karate and flying armor). Gizmag caught up with Atkeson to discuss the project.

We tend to think of robots as hard things made of steel and plastic, but that's not always the best option… not the least because people aren't made out of steel and plastic. As the world's population grows older, there will be more call for robots to help to tend to the elderly as nurses and companions, but if they're to operate in a human environment they need to be non-threatening, less likely to cause injuries, and able to bump into the furniture without scratching the varnish.

Carnegie Mellon's approach is to develop soft robots that do away with gears and pulleys and hard bodies in favor of fabrics, balloons, and light plastic composites with pneumatic artificial muscles. Such cushiony robots would not only be safer to be around, since bumping into one would be like colliding with a beach toy, but they'd also be lighter, cheaper, more portable, and even partly disposable. In addition, Atkeson and his colleagues see such robots as wearable. That is, they could be incorporated into casts and braces to support patients and help to restore mobility to injured limbs.

We talked with Atkeson about how close Baymax is to reality and the future of soft robotics.

Gizmag: What has to happen before we see a real-life Baymax like the one in "Big Hero 6?"

Atkeson: There are two parts to building a Baymax. One is we need to figure out how for robots to be safe when they're real close to people, so they can help you dress or comb your hair. The second big challenge is giving it a brain. It's got to be as smart as the Baymax in the movie, so it knows what to do and how to hold a conversation and maybe even figure out how to help people.

Gizmag: Which of these is more of a challenge?

Atkeson: I think the body will come first. We may not have completely independent healthcare companions right off the bat. They might have a large component of teleoperation or calling into home base to answer a question.

Gizmag: How would a soft robot work?

Atkeson: In the movie, there's a rigid robot inside and that makes it move. I would like to actually go the whole hog and get as little metal skeleton as possible. In that case, it's much more like an octopus. In a soft robot, we would have compartment we would fill with compressed air and that would cause it to move like a piston made of bladders and air bags.

Gizmag: What would be the advantages of a soft robot?

Atkeson: I think that we are going to have a huge problem [in the future] finding robots to take care of people. For example, I think that one very important application is if you have an older couple and one of them is bedridden, and the spouse is too weak to flip them over in bed, you've got to figure out a way to move that person. A soft robot would be strong enough to do it.

Gizmag: What would be the first applications of soft robot technologies?

Atkeson: People talk about the first levels of apps. I think that the early adopters will be those who really need it, and then we'll see it much more in society. Then we could see parts of the technology being used, like the thing bagging your groceries could be a soft arm at an automatic checkout.

Gizmag: How long will it be before we can expect to see soft robots?

Atkeson: We're already seeing this in a lot of places and many nursing homes have what are called no-lift policies, where nurses are not allowed to lift patients. Instead, they use these gantry systems to move people around. I think we might see something in that application, or something in physical therapy relatively soon. You already have inflatable casts. It isn't that big a step to have an inflatable cast that can move your wrist.

Gizmag: This one's for the 12-year olds: How long before they can get their own Baymax?

Atkeson: I think we'll have a toy system within a few years. They'll gradually increase in functionality, but one of the easier applications is a simple toy Baymax. Your daughter will probably too old to have one, but her kids might.

The video below discusses the Carnegie Mellon soft robotics project.

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