While we're not allowed to share all the cool stuff that we saw on our visit to iRobot back in July, DARPA has just approved for public release a video of this awesome project: a fully controllable robot arm that can be inflated and deflated like a balloon.
The AIRarm is lightweight, inexpensive, and stows compactly. It's inflated and deflated with an on-board pump, and uses actuators and strings to move its joints without embedded motors. While regular PackBot 3-link arms are between 15 and 20 pounds, the AIRarm system only weighs about a tenth of that, a fact that would be much appreciated by the soldiers that have to carry these robots around. Despite its light weight, AIRarm is no slouch, and can lift up to five pounds, or possibly more depending on how much its inflated. By varying the level of inflation, it's also possible to vary the level of compliance of the arm: this makes the arm a little bit flexible when you need it to be, which in turn makes it safer and more durable. Oh, and since it's mostly made of fabric and string, it's wicked cheap, at least compared to a conventional arm.
As it turns out, you can do more with inflatable structures and actuators than just make arms. Check out this little guy:
Yes, it's completely inflatable, yes, it can walk, and no, we can't really tell you anything more about it, although it's worth mentioning that it kinda reminds us of this crazy thing.
iRobot was just awarded a $650,000 contract from DARPA to continue working on inflatable arms as part of the M3 program, so we'll definitely be seeing more of this stuff in the near future.
[ iRobot ]
[ DARPA ]
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.