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Biotechnology

Japanese engineers develop robotic arm made of helium balloons

Ultralight device can reach high locations to perform inspections

A robotic arm made of helium balloons and joints ascends to a high location to perform an inspection during a demonstration. (Courtesy of Koichi Suzumori)

TOKYO -- A team of engineers led by Koichi Suzumori, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, has invented a multijoint robotic arm made of helium gas balloons. The ultralight device, which is capable of being raised several floors up, is expected to be a safer alternative than drones to perform dangerous jobs, including checks at high locations in plants and other facilities.   

The team is aiming to deploy the arm within three years with the help of plant owners. 

The arm weighs only 980 grams and is made of balloons consisting of a layer of nylon sheet and polyethylene that is filled with helium. The 20-meter-long device has 20 joints located every meter that alternately move vertically or horizontally. The air pressure inside the balloons controls artificial muscles that move the joints so that the arm is flexible in every direction. A camera is attached at the top. 

After use, the arm can be deflated and packed flatly, making it convenient for transport and storage. The surface of the entire arm is reinforced with an aluminum film to prevent gas from leaking. 

During a demonstration, the device ascended to a height of 14 meters and focused on a hole, and then changed angles so the camera could look inside a horizontal pipe located just underneath the hole. 

The demonstration was performed at the Naraha Remote Technology Development Center in Fukushima Prefecture, in northeast Japan. The site began fully operating last year as the center for development and testing of remote-controlled robots to be used for decommissioning the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant that was wracked by powerful earthquakes and tsunami in 2011. 

Suzumori's team hopes the arm can help with work being done at the Fukushima plant. 

The arm's light weight is an advantage for flexibly controlling the device. However, its operation can be significantly disturbed by airflows, such as those from air conditioners and wind. Also, a method to recover the helium is another hurdle yet to be resolved. 

The team is working on design improvements, such as the ability to change the combination of artificial muscles, so that the arm can be used in various situations. 

Recently, drones have been expected to replace humans for performing certain dangerous jobs like making inspections in high areas. But drones are still prone to risks, such as crashing and damaging facilities or injuring humans. In addition, unmanned flying devices are not suitable for performing checks in narrow spaces.

Suzumori's robotic arm is drawing attention as a potential alternative to increase safety in executing these tasks. 

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