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Story by Laurie Bailey
Disney’s newest movie star hero, a fist-bumping, huggable marshmallow named Baymax, drew its inspiration from ongoing research at Carnegie Mellon University’s Soft Robotics and Bionics Lab. When the research grows up, it may become a real-life super hero to caregivers and those with disabilities.
Professor of robotics, Chris Atkeson, and assistant professor in the Robotics Institute and founder of the Soft Robotics and Bionics Lab, Yong-Lae Park, are developing a future application of soft robotics that may one day assist people with showering, dressing, eating and more. The softer robots may not only make a world of difference to patients, but they are apparently endearing to watch on the silver screen.
The first soft robotic arm was developed with Atkeson’s guidance by researcher Siddharth Sanan while he was a Ph.D. candidate at CMU. Sanan is now a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard University.
Just how Sanan’s prototype became the stuff of movies is the best part of the story. His research caught the eye of “Big Hero 6” co-director Don Hall while he was visiting the Soft Robotics and Bionics Lab at CMU in 2011 in search of good ideas for his next project. “We find inspiration through our research trips, and it was our visit to CMU that was a game changer in our character design,” Hall says.
“I was really taken with Chris Atkeson’s level of passion,” says the co-director. “Our characters in the film are brilliant science students. We wanted to reflect the passion of all the scientists we met during our various research trips within our characters.”
Hall and his colleagues took with them the design elements that Disney artists integrated into Baymax’s “naïve, guileless nature. They were careful to remain mum about the scope of their film project throughout their time in Pittsburgh, says Atkeson.
Atkeson is credited in the movie that opens in theaters this weekend.
“It was a thrill to see our ideas flushed out in the movie,” he says, adding that the Disney team was spot on with the technology the CMU roboticists suggested to them three years ago. “As I said to co-director Don Hall at the (movie’s wrap party in Hollywood), ‘there is a big difference between a bag of air and a lovable character.”
The value of soft robotic technology cannot be understated, says Atkeson.“The problem with these ‘metal monsters,’ as I call them, is they’re big and heavy and they’re going to hurt you. My goal was to build a robot as lightweight as possible.
So CMU robotics wizards created a 3-layered, lightweight arm made of a carbon fiber skeleton, customized artificial pneumatic muscles and a skin made of polyurethane-based inflatable plastic, explains Park.
“The real novelty is the entire package, made of soft and rigid materials and its application,” he says.
Next, researchers plan to collaborate with CMU’s Soft Machines Lab to develop a new arm model that is more flexible and includes skin sensors to detect movement or contact. The Soft Machines Lab is also developing new methods for rapidly making these materials using 3D printing and other fabrication technologies.
“Imagine you can buy this robot and put it on your table and use it for your eating, brushing and combing,” says Park.
Atkeson also notes that to consider patients’ needs and use, his team has collaborated with the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Nursing for over 15 years.
The cost to make the soft robotic arm today would be about $10,000, says Atkeson. That number could come down to about $1,000, once they are mass produced, he adds. They are currently examining inexpensive ways to build the robots such as by melting, gluing or sewing fabrics and plastics.
“If we can sew robots, we’re much better off. It’s so simple it sounds crazy,” he says.