Jambot Session: We've Seen The Future And It's Really Squishy

by Jason Toon

Robots are made of metal, right? They're rigid, clanking machines made of gears and wires and whatnot, aren't they? And don't robots move via one slow, heavy footfall at a time? Well, if our pals at iRobot (and their pals at the Defense Department) have their way, robots are about to get a whole lot squishier. Ready or not, here comes the blobby, quivering, slithering Jambot:

"The focus of the project was a mobile platform that is completely squishy," says Chris Janes, Research Program Manager at iRobot. Their partner on the project, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was looking for a drone "that's roughly the size of a softball but can squeeze through a hole the size of a quarter. Everything should be soft: the power system, the activation, everything should be soft."

It's all possible through the magic of "jamming", and not the kind you'd find going on at the guitar store...

"Jamming is a physical phenomenon that occurs with a confined volume of particulate matter," Janes says. "If you remove the air and create a vacuum, the particles jam, they interlock, they form a rigid structure. Imagine vacuum-packed coffee. It's like a brick, right? But if you poke a hole in it and let air in, it turns flexible. That's the general principle behind the Jambot.

"Picture a soccer ball, covered in triangular patches filled with granular material, and each patch can be jammed or unjammed on demand. Now imagine that soccer ball if you made one half of it solid, like a rock, then inflated the ball. It would inflate asymmetrically, expanding in the area that's soft. The (Jambot) system jams or unjams patches, then inflates and deflates the middle, so you can get it to change shape.

"You can put mass around the center of gravity in asymmetry. Jambot's center of gravity shifts and it moves forward." iRobot and DARPA call it Jamming Skin-Enabled Locomotion (JSEL); I call it a great stocking-stuffer.

Alas, don't look for it in stores anytime soon: "Well, it won't be available by Christmas," Janes says, laughing richly at my naïveté. "At this point, this is a research project. There are no plans at this point to make a consumer product. We're very much in the exploratory stage.

"The video is called 'First Steps' - it literally shows Jambot's first steps."

Janes cites earthquake search-and-rescue as one example of how a blob-bot could be useful. DARPA, on the web page for its Chemical Robots projects, hints more intriguingly at using them to "gain covert access to denied or hostile space." Now we're talking excitement. By the way, I would totally go see a band called Chemical Robots play at a club called Hostile Space. That goes double if all the members are squishy Jambots. Just throwing that out there, DARPA. Hearts and minds, you know?

As far as I'm concerned, this project deserves respect just for introducing the phrase "jammable slurry" into the English language. But then I asked Janes the obvious question: isn't he worried that these Jambots will slither into our bedrooms and smother us with their squishy elastomeric bodies while we sleep?

"Not really," he said. "We're all researchers. This was all done by us. We're used to crazy, innovative technologies and things people haven't seen before. We don't really get creeped out by it, or anthropomorphize it." But then, isn't that what you'd expect him to say?