BERKELEY, Calif. — When every second counts during emergencies such as wildfires, chemical spills, and environmental or natural disasters, getting first responders to the disaster to assess the situation is critical, but can take precious time. Squishy Robotics Inc. said its air-deployable, shape-shifting sensor robots could provide life-saving situational awareness about environmental threats so first responders and the public can make crucial decisions faster.
Shaped like a geodesic ball, the Squishy Robots are equipped with six cameras, GPS, and various interchangeable sensors to detect chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive (CBRNE) hazards. They can deliver data and 360-degree videos in situations where human access can be difficult or unsafe.
When dropped 400 feet from a drone or 600 feet from a helicopter, the lightweight yet strong sensor robots can quickly provide first responders and HazMat teams with data from the ground, said Squishy Robotics. It added that this would eliminate the need for responders to enter risky environments and reducing their exposure to unknown hazards.
“Our Squishy Robots are very compliant, meaning they are designed to take the force from a fall and not get damaged, and offer the situational awareness that is essential for first responders,” explained Dr. Alice Agogino, co-founder and CEO of Squishy Robotics. and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley. “We have a solution for the urgent, worldwide need to improve efficiency and increase the safety of emergency responders and the public.”
“Over the last 20 years, 400 first responders have died going into dangerous situations,” she added. “Our sensor-equipped robots can make a tremendous difference for these brave people by saving lives, reducing costs, and increasing overall effectiveness of emergency-response teams.”
Squishy Robotics spins out from NASA research
Squishy Robotics’ technology is a spin-off of a robot originally developed for NASA space exploration. The woman-majority-owned startup participated in the Berkeley SkyDeck accelerator.
The company has created both stationary and mobile robots. The mobile version (still in beta testing) is capable of being remotely controlled to travel over uneven ground, and the stationary version is intended to be a rapidly deployable sensor platform.
The company has signed collaboration agreements with preeminent first-responder teams, such as the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) and the Houston Fire Department (HFD), the largest fire departments in California and Texas, respectively. Both departments have agreed to beta test the robots, providing feedback and recommendations that will help refine the stationary and mobile robots.
LACoFD training and testing is taking place at the Del Valle Regional Training Center where firefighters can test the robots in the “HazMat City” area, practicing with overturned tanker trucks and simulated chemical releases.
What happens in an emergency situation?
Today, first responders use manually positioned sensors to determine the quality of the air and general environment. For situations involving hazardous gases or materials, first responders must first suit up to the maximally safe personal protection equipment (PPE) before going into a dangerous “hot zone” to obtain critical sensor readings that can help responders develop an action plan to mitigate the hazard. This is time-consuming and puts responders in harm’s way.
PPE suits are expensive, cumbersome, and physically taxing on the body, and the entire process of suiting-up, walking sensors into and out of a “hot zone,” and decontamination can take more than 90 minutes.
Squishy Robotics said a first responder team could accurately and promptly deliver the robots via remote-piloted drones or helicopters. Once air-dropped, the sensor-enabled robots would provide real-time video surveillance and report back on hot zone air quality and the hazard levels.
The first responders, located a safe distance away from the danger, can monitor the scene with the Squishy Robotics’ user interface to get the visual and the chemical/biological/radiological concentration readings needed to respond to emergency situations. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are used to improve data analytics over time and optimize mobility solutions.
Squishy Robotics is making its shape-shifting robots available for pre-sale through its website, and it said it expects its products to be delivered by the end of the year.