Inflatable arm will make anti-bomb robot safer, lighter

iRobot wants to make their bomb defusing robot, PackBot, faster, cheaper, and safer by replacing its metal arm with a rubbery limb that can be pumped up to the proper stiffness.

iRobot -- maker of the robot vacuum cleaner Roomba -- wants to put an inflatable arm onto military robots to make them lighter, cheaper, safer, and more agile. New Scientist reports.

Last week, the Massachusetts-based company applied for a patent for a new device, a riff on another one of their robots, called PackBot.

PackBot is a rugged robot that features an articulated arm designed for defusing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and for demining. After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster , two of these machines helped clear debris and assisted with imaging reactor buildings.

However, its weight and its long metal arm make it cumbersome to transport. So, instead of the metal arm, the new device has an inflatable limb:

  • A lightweight rubbery membrane encloses inflatable arm segments, which can be folded into the robot's body for storage.
  • When deployed in the field, the flaccid arm's jointed, rotatable segments are pumped up and tuned to the stiffness required for the task by a smart pressure-control system.
  • Pairs of artificial muscles manipulate the arm and its grippers. Long air-filled bladders act in opposition to each other, like human biceps and triceps.

The challenge will be making the motors -- which are needed to drive the rotation of joints and air compressors -- light enough to make the switch to inflatable robotics worthwhile.

If it can accomplish that, the firm claims the new robot will be much safer than the current iteration. For example, the patent filing notes that the soft, pliant arms should end harmful collisions with humans and other fragile objects.

[Via New Scientist]

Image: Wikimedia

This post was originally published on