NASA is building an inflatable space robot named King Louie

BYU's Robot King Louie being built by NASA
Nate Edwards/BYU

Whether it is serving as helpful Robby the Robot-style assistants to human astronauts or carrying out remote explorations where humans dare not — or simply don’t want to — tread, there are plenty of reasons why robots have a valuable future in space missions. But don’t expect that the bots best suited for a life in the stars will necessarily look like the ones we’re used to seeing here on Earth.

The latest example of this is King Louie (yes, named after the rowdy orangutan from Disney’s 1967 movie The Jungle Book). Developed using funding from NASA, this inflatable creation may appear more like a float from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade than a state-of-the-art robot, but it’s actually a pretty damn interesting glimpse at the possible future of robotics.

BYU's Robot King Louie being worked on
Nate Edwards/BYU

“Robots like King Louie are essentially made up of bags of air, surrounded by a fabric shell that is really strong,” Marc Killpack, a Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Brigham Young University, who worked on the project, told Digital Trends.

Louie’s movement is controlled by inflating or deflating different chambers in its limbs. For instance, inflating a chamber on the bottom of its arm makes the arm move up. Inflating a chamber on the top makes the arm move back down.

As such, they function in the same antagonistic way as muscle pairs in the human body, where one muscle contracting (say, your bicep) means another one (in this case, the tricep) relaxing. Using only air pumped into the joints, Killpack estimates that the robot’s current payload capacity is equivalent to that of a more traditional robot, like Rethink Robotics’ Baxter robot, for example.

Robots in space

The idea of using an inflatable robot in space makes sense when you consider one of the biggest fundamental challenges of space travel: getting the equipment up into space to begin with. This is why groups like NASA have invested so heavily in research into areas like 3D printing, with the idea that, rather than having to rocket all of their needed equipment into space at a premium cost, it would instead be much easier to print them as and when required.

The King Louie project offers similar promise. NASA hopes that it will be possible to use Louie as an alternative to more traditional robot arms or humanoid robots on rovers, shuttles, and space stations, but without the initial transportation challenges of that equipment. Instead, it can be shipped (make that “rocketed”) to its destination in a deflated state, and then blown up when it’s necessary to get to work.

Brigham Young University

“Fluid-driven robots can be beneficial because when you release the fluid — air, in this case — the robot can collapse down to much smaller size for storage or transport,” Killpack said.

The lightweight robot design is also useful when you consider that these robots are highly likely to be working alongside either humans or sensitive equipment, often in very cramped environments. As a result, an inflatable robot is considered preferable to a hard one because it does not pose the same physical dangers if there is an unwanted interaction.

More earthbound applications, too

NASA has plenty of configurations in mind when it comes to possible use of the King Louie robot. These could range from a single air-powered robot arm on a rover to a more humanoid creation resembling a Bobo Doll. But the research may well have more earthbound applications, too.

BYU's Robot King Louie
Nate Edwards/BYU

“As we programmed the robot and developed mathematical models to describe how the inflatable soft robots would move, we definitely had space applications in mind,” Killpack said. “However, the more we work with these platforms, the more convinced we become that pretty much any application that requires an automated solution to be in close proximity to people, these robots could be viable candidates given some further refinement and development.”

Some of these possible applications might include in-home assistance, working in hospitals around people, or in search and rescue operations where rescuers could take advantage of their easy portability to transport them to remote, hard-to-reach locations.

“We do not imagine these soft robots necessarily replacing the precision and speed of traditional factory robots, but we do imagine that there are many applications where a large, heavy, dangerous factory robot would not be a good fit and a soft, inflatable robot could perform well,” he said.

For now, King Louie remains a research and development project. Where it goes from here — both physically and in terms of ongoing research on the project — remains to be seen. Nonetheless, it is great to see that all parties working on this initiative are exploring new and exciting technological trends which promise to make soft robots more useful than ever.

Here at Digital Trends, we’re happy to say that we’re keen to welcome our new inflatable space robot overlords. Long may they remain free from punctures!

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Racing drones and robotic ping pong trainers

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Movies & TV

The best shows on Hulu right now (August 2019)

It's often overwhelming to navigate Hulu's robust library of TV shows. To help, we put together a list of the best shows on Hulu, whether you're into frenetic cartoons, intelligent dramas, or anything in between.
Emerging Tech

NASA wants to send two more missions to Mars to collect rock samples

With its Mars 2020 mission, NASA hopes to collect samples from the surface of the planet. The challenge is how to get those samples back to Earth. Now, NASA has revealed its plans for two followup missions to Mars.
Emerging Tech

Google’s soccer-playing A.I. hopes to master the world’s most popular sport

Think the player A.I. in FIFA ‘19 was something special? You haven’t seen anything yet! That’s because Google is developing its own soccer-playing artificial intelligence. And, if the company’s history with machine intelligence is…
Emerging Tech

Artificial tree promises to suck up as much air pollution as a small forest

Startup Biomitech has developed an artificial tree that it claims is capable of sucking up as much air pollution as 368 real trees. It could be a game-changer for cities with limited free space.
Emerging Tech

Mars 2020 rover now has a rotating array of drill bits for sampling Martian rock

Most the key components in the Mars 2020 rover are installed and ready to go. The next phase of construction was to install the bit carousel, an important mechanism for the gathering and sorting of samples from the Martian surface.
Emerging Tech

Eric Geusz: Apple engineer by day, spaceship designer by night

An Apple software engineer by day, artist Eric Geusz spends his nights drawing everyday household objects as amazing, science fiction-style spaceships. Check out the impressive results.
Emerging Tech

NASA selects landing site candidates for OSIRIS-Rex to sample asteroid Bennu

Last year, the OSIRIS-REx craft arrived at asteroid Bennu, from which it will collect a sample from the asteroid to be brought back to Earth. Now, the NASA team has selected four potential sites to choose from for the sampling mission.
Emerging Tech

The black hole at the center of our galaxy is flaring and no one knows why

At the heart of our galaxy lies a supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*. Normally this giant monster is relatively docile, but recently it's been a hotbed of unexpected activity, rapidly glowing 75 times brighter than normal.
Emerging Tech

SpaceIL’s crashed lander may have sent thousands of tardigrades to the moon

When the SpaceIL craft Beresheet crashed into the moon earlier this year, it left more than just an impact mark. Thousands of micro-animals called tardigrades were along for the ride and may have survived the crash.
Emerging Tech

NASA’s satellite projects will study the sun using solar sailing

Small satellites can be used for all sorts of purposes, and NASA has been searching for ideas to push ahead the capabilities of the hardware. The agency has announced two new projects to demonstrate the potential of small satellites.
Emerging Tech

Hubble captures a beautiful cosmic jellyfish made of glowing gas

A new image from Hubble might look like a deep-space jellyfish, but it's not a sign of extraterrestrial life - in fact, it's a planetary nebula called NGC 2022, located in the constellation of Orion (The Hunter).
Emerging Tech

Parker Solar Probe makes a second orbit of the sun, captures solar wind on video

The Parker Solar Probe, launched last year, has completed its second orbit around the sun. To celebrate, the team responsible for the probe has released a video showing solar winds in action.

Starman on Tesla Roadster makes first orbit around sun, braces for loneliness

Starman and his Tesla Roadster, sent by SpaceX to outer space last year, have completed their first orbit around the sun. The people on Earth may be able to catch a glimpse of the cherry-red electric vehicle on November 2020.