Intelligent Machines

This Super-Tall Robotic Arm Is Made of Helium Balloons

It’s easy for a robot to reach 20 meters when it weighs next to nothing.

What’s bright silver, weighs next to nothing, and can reach up to the fifth floor? No, not an aluminum ladder. This inflatable robotic arm.

While most robot arms are trying to develop brains, this one’s gone on a strict diet. Unlike the robotic arms you might find in a factory, this device, developed by the Suzumori Endo Laboratory at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and discovered by IEEE Spectrum, uses a series of helium-filled balloons to form its arm. The use of balloons means that the entire 20-meter-long structure weighs just 1.2 kilograms—light enough for simple pneumatic artificial muscles  to be used to articulate its joints from the ground.

There are some very evident drawbacks to the so-called Giacometti Arm—presumably named after artist Alberto Giacometti, who is famous for his slender, spindly sculptures depicting the human form. Its lightweight nature means that it would be easily buffeted by winds, for instance. It clearly can’t carry a great deal, either. And it’s only as resilient as its balloons.

But the researchers behind it suggest that because it’s so light and packable, it could theoretically be used for search and inspection tasks. It’s certainly plausible that it could be used in situations where it might be difficult to transport a heavyweight device, say, or where the use of a drone isn’t an option for battery-life reasons.

(Read more: “Japanese Robotics Giant Gives Its Arms Some Brains,” “Google Builds a Robotic Hive-Mind Kindergarten”)

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