Even if you’re not familiar with Big Hero 6, a comic series and Disney movie, or the recent Disney+ show Baymax!, the robot Baymax might look familiar. He’s a six-foot-two-inch, round, white, inflatable robot nurse with a carbon-fiber skeleton. Tasked with healthcare duties, Baymax calmly cares for his patients. He supports a middle-school student who gets her period for the first time. He helps a cat that has accidentally swallowed a wireless earbud. And though Baymax constantly gets poked with holes and must reinflate himself, he is still a great healthcare provider. He also makes a great pal.
Soft robots already exist, as do most of the pieces that you’d need to create a big, friendly Baymax. But putting them all together to form a robot that we would want to have in our homes is another story.
“There’s all kinds of things that need to come together to make something as amazing as Baymax,” says Alex Alspach. He’s a roboticist at Toyota Research Institute in Cambridge, Mass. He also worked for Disney Research and helped develop the movie version of Baymax. To build a real Baymax, he says, roboticists will need to address not only hardware and software, but also human-robot interaction and the design or aesthetics of the robot.
The software — Baymax’s brain, basically — might be something like Alexa or Siri, so that it gives personalized responses to each patient. But giving Baymax such a smart, humanlike mind will be hard. Building the body will probably be simpler, Alspach suspects. Still, even that will come with challenges.
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The first challenge will be keeping the robot’s weight down. Baymax is a big bot. But he needs to be lightweight to help keep people and pets safe, says Christopher Atkeson. This roboticist works at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. His research focuses on soft robotics and human-robot interaction. He helped create a soft inflatable robotic arm that inspired the design of Baymax. Such a design could keep a real-life Baymax from getting too heavy.
But keeping the robot inflated poses another problem. In the movie, whenever a hole is poked in Baymax, he covers himself with tape or a Band-Aid. Baymax can also inflate and deflate himself when he needs to, but it takes a long time. It’s realistic, Alspach says. But the movie does not show the complex hardware that would be required to do this. An air compressor would be too heavy for a robot to carry. And while roboticists are coming up with chemicals that could inflate soft robots quickly, Alspach notes, it’s too early to use these techniques.
In addition to safety, staying soft and lightweight would keep the robot’s parts from getting damaged, Alspach says. But when making a life-size humanoid robot, that will be difficult, since so many moving parts — such as motors, a battery pack, sensors and the air compressor— will pack on weight.
These robots are “definitely not going to be squeezable [and] cuddly anytime soon,” says Cindy Bethel. Bethel is a roboticist at Mississippi State University in Mississippi State. She focuses on human-robot interaction and artificial intelligence. She also owns a stuffed Baymax. For now, she says, robots will look more like the Terminator than a massive, plump Squishmallow.
Another issue that will have to be overcome to build a giant soft robot is heat. This heat will come from the motors and other electronics that make the robot work. Anything soft covering the frame of a robot will trap heat.
Bethel created a soft dog robot called Therabot. It’s a stuffed animal with robotic parts on the inside that helps patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Here the heat isn’t such a big problem, since it makes Therabot feel more like a real dog. But for Baymax — who will be much bigger than a dog — there will be more motors and more heat. That could cause Baymax to overheat and shut down. A bigger concern would be that overheating could cause the fabric to catch on fire, Bethel says.
Baymax’s walk is yet another challenge. It’s more like a slow waddle. But he is able to navigate around and squeeze through tight spaces. “I don’t know of anybody who can make a robot move like that right now,” Bethel says. And the electricity to power that movement might require Baymax to drag a long extension cord behind him.
Baymax will see you now
Bethel’s Therabot cannot walk yet. But it does have sensors that respond differently if the stuffed dog is petted than if it is held by the tail. Baymax will also need sensors if he is to, for instance, hold and pet a cat, recognize that you’re hurt or having bad day, or accomplish many of his other tasks. Some of these tasks, such as recognizing a person is having a bad day, are difficult even for some humans, says Alspach.
Medical scanning technologies that a robot nurse could use to diagnose illnesses or injuries are still being invented. But if you want a robot caretaker rather than a skilled nurse, that might be closer. And Alspach has identified a good place for robotics to help: In Japan, there are not enough younger people to take care of the elderly. Robots could step in. Atkeson agrees and hopes that robots will be able to help older people stay in their homes and save money.
Will we see Baymax anytime soon? “There’s going to be a lot of dumb robots before you get to something as smart as Baymax,” says Alspach. But most experts agree that big steps toward making Baymax will come soon. “I think kids will get to see that in their lifetime,” Alspach says. “I’m hoping I get to see it in my lifetime. I don’t think we’re that far.”