From Broadway to NASA, Soft Robots in Space



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Olivia Jeffers

March 5 · Issue #17 · View online

Welcome to Compassionate Technologies. Here you'll get a dose of real science and business in your inbox every Sunday morning. Why? Because cutting-edge research shouldn't be locked in an ivory tower. This newsletter covers the relationships between machine learning, robotics, genetic engineering, and climate science. It's all connected, and it's my passion to simplify and make clear those connections for all of you. Love, Olivia.

Last year in Brooklyn, I visited the office and maker space of SuperReleaser designer Kari Love and scientist Matt Borgatti. In a surprising blend of art and science, they build robot fingers, suit parts for NASA and design performance optimizing shoes.

Kari Love and Matt Borgatti making a soft robotic finger at SuperReleaser
Kari Love and Matt Borgatti making a soft robotic finger at SuperReleaser
Using the same techniques in building costumes for the Rockettes and making movie monsters, Kari Love and Matt Borgatti with Super-Releaser created NASA-funded space suit glove components.
Their tool bench is half mechanical and half medical, screwdrivers and scalpels.
Sitting in their office in a warehouse in Brooklyn, you can feel the creativity from their artistic pasts blending into their designs today. Their tool bench is half mechanical and half medical, screwdrivers and scalpels. Much of their work requires 3D printing molds, mixing and pouring silicone, which has human flesh-like qualities, and using air pressure actuators to activate their prototypes.
From Broadway to NASA
They show me the Super-Releaser-made transition cuff, it fits between the normal puffy air pressure space suit and the tight-fitting mechanical counter pressure glove. It has to be airtight or else the space suit is breached. This new glove is an improvement over the old bulky space gloves that limit an astronaut’s mobility and precision, with the counter pressure glove, you get a glove that fits directly to the skin.
The two challenges are high performance in the extreme environment of space, and working with variations in human bodies says Love. As a contractor for NASA at her previous company Final Frontier Design (FFD), Love leveraged her experience as a costumer for the Rockettes. In creating spacesuits, you have to make “99 of the same thing, but not the same thing,” says Love. Each suit has to fit perfectly to each person’s unique body, while being comfortable, and still performing the function.
FFD MCP glove test evaluation setup including glove chamber, video documentation, and  pressure visualization. (Photo Credit: FFD)
FFD MCP glove test evaluation setup including glove chamber, video documentation, and pressure visualization. (Photo Credit: FFD)
Similarly to Broadway, astronauts also operate in a high performance environment. There is little room for failure, and items need to be worn for many hours at a time, taking into account body heat and sweat - without slipping and maintaining flexibility and function. As an added challenge, for comfort, NASA has a standard: “5 minutes, no marks” for all pieces of the space suit. The wrist dam Borgatti produced as a subcontractor for Final Frontier Design’s MCP glove, performed to that standard.
“Baby powder is an important part of space” says Borgatti, Super-Releaser’s lead scientist.
Creating an item that combats chafing in an extreme environment where in the vacuum of space “lungs can’t function and sweat boils away” is a challenge he says.
Back to Earth
Here on earth, soft robotics have different applications, especially in the growing market of industrial robotics. Sales and installations of industrial robots have grown 29% between 2013-14, topping $32 billion, with Asia driving the growth, according to ABI Research.
For better or worse, robots are increasingly taking over warehousing responsibilities, with some warehouses operating completely in the dark without turning on the lights. Where soft robotics comes into play is in moving soft and irregularly shaped products, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, itself a $27 billion dollar market.
Currently the human hand is the best engineered item for this purpose. The human hand is soft yet has strength and can sense and adjust the amount of necessary pressure. In this way, we can safely move thousands of produce without damaging the appearance in a grocery store aisle.
However, human hands are expensive and in the United States farms have suffered a $9 billion loss due to labor shortages.
Several companies such as Soft Robotics based in Cambridge, Massachusetts are creating soft robots that won’t pulverize produce in transit, a valuable application for the warehouse industry.
Taking Soft Robotics Across Industries
While Matt and Kari with Super-Releaser place themselves on the prototyping end of the engineering spectrum, they also label themselves as “problem agnostic”. They aim to use creativity to bring soft robotics to a large array of problems, using their decades of developed intuition for human-centered design to rapidly create prototypes for use in industrial, space, sports, and medical fields.
Useful Links...
This incredible soft robot needs no batteries or computer chips
Edible Soft Robotics - Kari Love talks hacking on edible robots at the Chaos Communications Congress hacker conference
A Look at the People...
Kari Love working with Final Frontier Design
Kari Love working with Final Frontier Design
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