Disney’s new 3D printed skin makes robots softer and safer for children

Robots and children pose a difficult problem. Robots naturally attract the attention of children because of their interactivity,  but they’re also machines with moving parts that can injure a child if they’re allowed to interact without adult oversight. Disney hopes to change all this with a new soft skin and soft touch system that’ll bring the lovable and huggable qualities of Baymax (Big Hero 6) to toy robots around the world.

The skin being developed is designed to protect children from the underlying machinery of a robot without compromising the robot’s functionality. The system uses a 3D printed soft skin module with an airbag-like system that provides a buffer between the child and the robot’s internal frame. The airbag system is comprised of an airtight cavity with pressure sensors that can measure the level of force being applied by the robot. This pressure feedback system allows the robot to apply a soft touch to an object, such as a child that it’s hugging.

Tests with bananas and other similar soft objects demonstrate the effectiveness of the system. When a rigid robot without a pressure feedback system was allowed to interact with a banana, the fruit was bent during the interaction due to the excess pressure exerted by the robot’s fingers. The pressure feedback-equipped robot, though, was able to detect the increase in the airbag pressure and reduce its torque allowing it to touch the banana without damaging it.

Not only does the system protect the children form the robot, it a also protects the robots from the kids. Because it uses an airbag-like system, Disney’s soft skin module also protect the robot when it is knocked down or dropped by its human companion Collision tests show that the module can reduce the peak force of an impact by as much as 32-52 percent and spread the force of a fall out over a longer period of time. Further study is needed in this area as the test designed to measure collision force are designed for industrial scale robots, not the very small collisions between a child and its handheld robot friend.

The work is being spearheaded by Disney Research, a division of the The Walt Disney company that collaborates with researchers worldwide to improve toy and entertainment technology.