First responders have a dangerous job, and often put their own lives at risk in order to go into disaster areas and save others. That’s dangerous for a multitude of reasons, but it often comes down to a simple lack of information about the conditions within a disaster area. When time is of the essence, they can’t afford to wait around and observe from a distance. That’s why engineers from the University of California Berkeley and Squishy Robotics have designed new robots that can be dropped from helicopters into harsh environments.
This design falls under a rapidly-growing class of machines called “tensegrity robots.” Tensegrity structures are characterized by the opposing forces of tension and compression, which results in both strength and resiliency. In this case, the robots are constructed from several rods that are joined by taught cables. That makes them strong by conventional standards, but also gives them enough flexibility to absorb impacts without damage. Once they’re safely on the ground, the robots can move by coordinating the contraction of the cables.
The development of these robots started in cooperation with NASA Ames, with the goal of building a robot that could be dropped onto Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. But they quickly realized those same properties could help save lives here on Earth. Robots like this could be dropped from a helicopter into a disaster area where they can quickly gather data about the conditions on the ground, such as identifying the presence of poisonous gases. First responders would then know what to expect when they enter the area, and what precautions they’d need to take.