Speaking about Soft Robots at NASA Ames

Official Visitor

Mark Micire (research scientist at the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA Ames) and Yun Kyung Kim (human-robot​ iInteraction​ ​designer at NASA Ames) were incredibly generous in offering me an opportunity to speak with the AstroBee and Super Ball Bot groups at NASA Ames. We’ve been keeping an eye on Super Ball Bot over at Super-Releaser, particularly because of the way the teams working on it are bringing simulation and iterative prototyping together to solve the open-ended problems involved in designing a robust control system for bots that can configure themselves into nearly infinite shapes.

The talk focused on the opportunities to use compliant materials to replicate organic mechanisms, the ways Super-Releaser solves problems in soft robotics, and the way we integrate multiple disciplines into our research. Afterwards I was able to see the work of the Super Ball Bot team – developing novel compliant actuators in addition to refining the systems that power their current Ball Bot prototypes.

I was also able to see the AstroBee, which was being evaluated on the biggest granite surface plate I’ve ever seen. I got to talk with Yun about her experience as a designer integrating into a team of engineers, which is its own challenge in itself, and the goals of the AstroBee project. It’s going to serve as a platform to develop behaviors for human/machine interaction in 0g, which is a problem I’ve never even considered.

Soft Robots (Actually) in Space

When I spoke at the SpaceApps conference, I hadn’t realized how close I was to working with NASA in a much more official capacity. A few months earlier I developed some prototypes for Final Frontier Design, a company devoted to the design and engineering of spacesuits. This was in my role as lead scientist at Super-Releaser and the end goal was proving to NASA that mechanical counterpressure garments (like I described in my talk) could be a practical reality with some time and development. I’m pleased to announce that they approved our proposal and we will be working on a new generation of EVA gloves over the next six months.

What I’m most excited about is the opportunity to bring all of the elements of engineering, prototyping, and digital manufacture for compliant materials to create and test all of the iterations of the glove we’ll be going through. There are thrilling mechanisms and intricate problems that I believe are only workable with compliance in mind. After all, we’re interfacing with the most mechanically complex manipulator the body has to offer.

Hopefully I’ll be able to update as progress is made. I will still continue my development work at Super-Releaser and research on the Neucuff, though the frequency of updates may drop off.

Title image by Lisandro Sanchez.

“Soft Robots in Space” talk at SpaceApps NYC

I spoke at the NYC NASA SpaceApps conference last weekend about how soft robots might end up in space in the next few years. I covered mechanical counterpressure suits, exercise on the International Space Station, enhancing strength on EVA’s, and how space turns your heart into a sphere. Stick around for the Q&A segment at the end, where I get to field some questions from real-life astronaut Catherine Coleman.

You can see my slides here.

Cover image by ZEISS Microscopy.