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Big Hero 6, the latest Disney film based on an idea from Marvel comics, features a giant inflatable robot called Baymax. And it’s not as unrealistic as it sounds.

Many science fiction epics envision robots as a key part of the future, including Isaac Asimov’s Robots series and Disney’s own WALL-E. But despite its jovial nature, Big Hero 6’s loveable giant might just be the most realistic glimpse of the robotics’ trajectory yet.

If you’re a Marvel fan, here are some online destinations to indulge your passion Discover Marvel Comics & Marvel Characters On The Web Discover Marvel Comics & Marvel Characters On The Web Marvel Comics was founded in 1939 as Timely Comics before becoming Atlas Comics in the 1950s and eventually the company we know and love in the 1960s. This was the era when Jack Kirby, Steve... Read More , but for now, let’s discover that not everything has to be shiny and hard-edged. Here’s why.

Soft Robotics Leap Onto The Big Screen

After Disney’s acquisition of Marvel, the wealth of the comic book archives (now heavy with 75 years’ worth of work) was explored with an aim to mine film ideas. Don Hall, Big Hero 6’s co-director, loved comics when he was growing up and delved into the vaults, soon discovering the 1990s comic series. But Marvel was happy for Disney to take the team in an entirely new direction and Hall soon went about creating an original concept for their robotic hero, Baymax.

The original Baymax made his debut in 1998, a dragon-esque robotic ‘synthformer’ which initially acted as a bodyguard for child prodigy, Hiro Takachiho. But its appearance in the big screen adaptation of Big Hero 6 is about as different from its razor-edged reptilian comic counterpart as you can get. Chris Williams, co-director, said:

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“[T]here was an understanding straight away that the movie was [going to] be inspired by some of these characters and by Big Hero 6 the comic, but it was going to grow into something that was very different. And [Marvel] were supportive of that and really cool about it. They were never possessive. They never said ‘Oh it shouldn’t be this thing.’ They would come to the screenings and give feedback. But that was about the extent of it.”

Baymax has turned into a loveable, inflatable robot that shows emotions through a display on his chest. That unique style found inspiration from a real-life technological advancement being worked on by the iRobot Corporation at Carnegie Mellon University.

Hall directly credits the institution, saying:

The actual healing robot came when we went to Carnegie Mellon and found the soft robotics and the vinyl and stuff like that. That was where Baymax the character — our Baymax the character — was birthed. It always seemed like there was something very poetic about a kid losing an older brother and the older brother’s creation being the thing that’s left behind to fill the void.

What’s Being Developed?

Hall saw the soft visage as an opportunity to create a caring companion, and it’s in the field of medicine that inflatable robotics really come into their own. In fact, early soft robotics (pneubots) were developed precisely for caring for humans.

A project for the Quality of Life Technology Center focused on adapting robots to cater for the disabled and elderly. They wanted something very safe and human-friendly, but also capable of great feats of strength and dexterity, in order to feed, lift, bathe and dress those incapable of carrying out those tasks themselves.

The project was led by Professor Chris Atkeson, who, alongside Siddharth Sanan, experimented with heat sealers to create inflatable ‘pockets’ and cables to replicate limb movement in structures made of soft fabrics and durable plastics.

Sanan also interned for Otherlab, a scientific think-tank which developed two of the most notable examples of pneubots: the “Ant-Roach” and the Inflatable Robotic Arm. Named because it looks like a cross between an anteater and a cockroach, Ant-Roach is a 15ft walking robot which weighs less than 70lbs – but is capable of supporting up to 1000lbs. The purpose of Ant-Roach was to “demonstrate the carrying capacity and high strength-to-weight ratios possible with inflatable structures.”

Otherlab’s Robotic Arm is exactly what it says it is, exhibiting an incredible level of dexterity, and works on the same principle as the Ant-Roach: using actuators and pneumatic piping throughout, fabric compartments expand and contract for mobility and finesse.

Why Are They Being Developed?

The fact that pneubots are safer for working alongside humans than other forms of robotics is an obvious positive, but there are plenty of other benefits.

One of goals of robotics is precision and mobility, and both the Ant-Roach and Robotic Arm show that pneubots are more than capable of these; further work at the Carnegie Robotics Institute and Purdue University may prove ideal for other medical applications Robotic Fabric May Advance Space Exploration and Medical Care Robotic Fabric May Advance Space Exploration and Medical Care Imagine a second-skin that contorts on command and is filled with sensors. That's exactly what researchers at Purdue University are trying to do with their development of a robotic fabric. Read More .

With the utilisation of memory materials and touch sensors, Yong-Lae Park, founder of Carnegie’s Soft Robotics and Bionics Lab, is working on accessories capable of supporting those with limb disorders.

But there’s also the psychological aspect: like Big Hero 6’s Baymax, pneubots have the capacity not to sit into the uncanny valley like other traditional robots. This ‘friendly’ look could aid integration into hospitals. However, they could still fall back into that creepy cliché of replicating the looks and motion of humans too closely.

Soft robotics might also be perfect for space exploration: they have a high strength-to-weight ratio, and can contract to a small size when uninflated.

Carnegie Mellon University argues that pneubots’ parts are economical and low-maintenance. It also cuts down the chance of joints being affected by space dust. Otherlab even exhibited at the Kennedy Space Center’s Robot Rocket Rally in February, showing off their Bop’em Pop’em Robot.

The Future: It May Not Be So Bad After All

Going Soft

Pneubots will play a big part in the future. Couple pneubotics with advances in 3D printing What Is 3D Printing And How Exactly Does It Work? What Is 3D Printing And How Exactly Does It Work? Imagine if you could print out three-dimensional objects straight from a printer in your home. When I was a kid in primary school, I thought it would be awesome if I could print pizzas out... Read More , for example, and there are too many benefits of soft robotics for the field to be ignored.

We’ve had startling visions of tomorrow: AIs with delusions of grandeur; golems adhering to the Three Laws of Robotics; and a depressive android called Marvin. But it turns out that a Disney animation featuring a massive balloon-like hero might be the real glimpse into what’s next.

What do you think of the new face of robotics? Are they more aesthetically-appealing than Asimov’s legion from the Robot series? And can you think of any more benefits of pneubotics?

Image Credits: Big Hero 6 giant display via RyC; Going Soft by Steve Jurvetson.

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