The term “inflatable” brings to mind balloons, rafts and bike tires. One image it doesn’t conjure is robots. RE2 Robotics may change that with their latest technology.
The Lawrenceville-based company, which specializes in robotic manipulator arms, won a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award to create inflatable underwater robots for the US Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR). Once finished, they’re expected to provide a safer way to disarm explosive devices on vessels, bridges, and underwater structures such as piers.
“Our goal is to keep divers out of the water,” says RE2 principal scientist Andrew Mor.
Founded in 2001, RE2 has developed a number of projects for the military, including one designed to assist Army combat medics in the field. However, the ONR contract marks a first step into the area of inflatable robotic technology.
“Investment in inflatable robotics is definitely a new, cutting-edge avenue of research for the Defense Department,” says Mor, who adds that the field itself hasn’t been around long.
The project originally started in 2015 as a Phase I SBIR, during which RE2 engineers came up with a concept for a light-weight, low-cost, easily deployable inflatable underwater dual manipulation system. The latest phase will include the development and testing of a prototype that will ultimately be used to assist divers with dismantling explosives and other hazards.
Mor confirms that the budget for the current phase will total $2,006,775 “if the ONR exercises all options.”
While the project is still in the early development stages, its description certainly differentiates it from the shiny, sleek image of a robot. While the majority of robots are constructed from hard materials like aluminum, plastic, steel or carbon fiber, Mor says the RE2 inflatable system looks more like the Michelin Man, with a fabric structure that fills up with water. The robot will connect to an existing Navy vehicle and be manipulated through a control station.
Because of the materials used, Mor claims the system would be less expensive to produce and easier to store. Its soft, shock-absorbent form would also prevent it from causing damage or accidentally triggering explosives during an operation.
It will also come outfitted with a state-of-art arm able to perform motions such as grabbing and unscrewing to a precise degree.
Mor says that while military applications are the current focus, the inflatable system could benefit other industries as well.
“The goal is to apply it to a broader market—not just defense applications, but commercial applications,” he says, citing the oil and gas industry. “They do a lot of work underwater, so to have manipulation tools that could be used for inspection tasks would be highly desirable.”