March 17, 2014      

Company Name: Otherlab
Founder: Saul Griffith, President and Founder, Otherlab.
Principals: Kevin Albert, Robotics Lead; Tim Swift, Orthotics Project Lead
Products: Geode, a free, open-source computational geometry software library; material handling robotic arms; orthotic devices; custom inflatable ?boxing robots?; and unreleased proprietary software for design and pneumatic control in inflatable robots.
Available: Prototypes arms available in 12-18 months
What it is: Robotic technologies using pneumatics, fabric, and compliant materials
Market niche: Material handling and medical assistive devices are key target markets, but Otherlab is working on what could be an entirely new area of engineering
Funding: $800,000 in multiple rounds of DARPA funding.
Industry Partnerships: None disclosed.
Contact: Kevin Albert, [email protected]

RBR?s Take

Soft and compliant materials are a promising area of innovation in the robotics space, with important applications across a variety of industries such as material handling, warehousing, healthcare, and performance athletics, to name a few.

However, the majority of efforts to date have lived with university research groups. Otherlab, as a research-driven organization that also pursues commercialization pathways for its technologies, is one of the first market-oriented groups I?ve met pushing the space forward. The company may not end up being first to market, but its work is helping articulate and solve problems that the field will have to address.

I won?t be surprised to see Otherlab?s IP licensed extensively across the industry in years to come.

Observations & Analysis

Otherlab is to technology what Willy Wonka?s chocolate factory is to sweets: a fascinating experimental playland, with multiple independent but related projects. Founded by Saul Griffith, an MIT-educated serial inventor and entrepreneur, Otherlab is an invention factory. Its headquarters, located in a former pipe organ factory in San Francisco?s Mission District, are packed with intriguing prototypes and products: desktop-sized CNC mills, an intestine-like storage system for natural gas, and an inflatable robotic arm.

Affixed to a piece of plywood, the robotic arm is about 1.2 meters tall. Its hand has five articulated fingers that form a softly closed fist, raised to the ceiling. Constructed from PVC-coated nylon, each of its joints is sewn with multiple, criss-crossing ballistic nylon reinforcements, and circuit boards are fastened at multiple points along the arm. Without the circuit boards, you might mistake it for a piece of art. But the lightweight fabric-and-air arm is a functional, soon-to-be commercial product.

The robotic arm is outfitted with sensors that keep track of the pressure and temperature of the gas inside its multiple air bladders and sense the orientation of the device. Low-power compressors and proportional control valves adjust the bladders? air pressure in response to changes – in force on the arm, the temperature of the room, etc. – to maintain its position and stiffness.

Kevin Albert and Tim Swift, who lead the robotics team, had me pass a small handweight to the arm. Using a manual control, Albert gripped the hand tightly around the barbell. As it stabilized, I could hear the tinny hiss of compressed air moving in and out of the arm?s air bladders to bring it back to position.

Pressurizing and depressurizing the bladders can move the arm as quickly as if it were controlled by mechanical actuators, with a precision of about 1 centimeter. That?s lower accuracy than a mechanical device, but it?s a tradeoff, not a failure: a little bit of give and flexibility is what allows the inflatable devices to operate around humans and in less predictable environments.

Soft robotics have several advantages: they?re lightweight, relative to their strength, safe for interaction with humans, and more compact than their metallic counterparts. No warning tape cautions you to stay out of the robotic arm?s range of motion, unlike traditional robotic arms, pneubotics won?t cause serious harm with an errant jab. Otherlab?s soft robotics work is in its early stages, but the company has developed some promising prototypes and playful test products (like boxing robots and a rideable, walking ?elephant?) that are helping to identify and solve issues that are in the critical path for the development of the field.

Bopem Popem Robots by Otherlab

Engineering Challenges

Working with compliant materials presents some clear challenges for engineering. First of all, the tools and models used to design engineered products are typically intended to work with rigid materials. Metals exhibit flexibility in the range of 0.25 percent of their length. Compliant materials can be 10 times as strong as steel relative to their weight, but they also have a lot more stretch – the ballistic nylon that Otherlab is using has a strength-to-weight ratio comparable to steel, and strain in the neighborhood of 2-4 percent, says Albert.

It?s not an impossible problem to solve, but modeling the behavior of the materials – and in the case of inflatable, pneumatically controlled structures, modeling the behavior of the gases inside – is a mathematically- and computationally-intensive task. To address this issue, Otherlab?s software engineers have developed several pieces of in-house software that allow them to model, design, and fabricate inflatable structures – and, most importantly, to dynamically use those models to control those designs in the real world. The foundational physics and math libraries, known as Geode, are available as a free, open source software download.

The team demonstrated a few other applications, as well: they had me put on an open sleeve that fastened with an elastic band around my wrist and two Velcro straps in the forearm and upper arm. The elbow was a series of narrow stitched pockets that, when deflated, collapsed and slid over each other like an armadillo?s bands or the shoulders of a motorcycle jacket. When inflated, the elbow bands spread apart, curling my arm upwards toward my chest. I could resist the motion, and it provided extra stability in the direction of the stiffness.

A Pneubot Named “Ant-Roach:” The Inflatable Anteater-Cockroach Robot

Where is Otherlab Headed?

The arm and the sleeve point in the main directions Otherlab would like to see its technology evolve: assistive technology for home healthcare applications is an enticing growth market, but Albert says the challenge of receiving FDA approval for a medical device will deter them from focusing on these applications at the outset.

Swift, an exoskeleton expert who joined the Otherlab team from RBR50 company Ekso Bionics, points out that orthotics have a huge amount of potential in non-medical markets as well, citing recreational equipment, inflatable armor, and space applications where their weight and packability are key features. A handful of mannequins in the lab are outfitted in almost-familiar-looking knee braces, shoulder cuffs, back braces, and sleeves.

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But the big-money opportunity today is in industrial material handling. Standalone robotic arms and grippers like the pneubotic arm are likely to find an eager audience in warehousing and distribution facilities, where they could offload some of the (literal) heavy lifting from employees to an assistive, mobile robot.

Swift cites one study showing that workman?s comp claims cost companies $13 billion per year, in the U.S. alone, and related losses in productivity and unreported claims are estimated to be as high as $50 billion year. Because the pneubotic arms are made from inexpensive, standard materials, they?re affordable enough that Swift believes they won?t displace jobs – they?ll make them safer.

The arm, which can lift items several times its own weight even as a prototype, could be moved around with a wheeled cart; workers could give the arm cues – using a pointer or an interface – to have it lift an item. ?They?re cheap enough that you don?t have to replace the workers with a robot; they can just become a piece of technology issued to workers when they start their job,? Swift muses.