It’s a bird, it’s a plane… no, it’s a Squishy Robot, dropped from a helicopter or a drone to transmit crucial environmental data to emergency responders at disaster scenes.

Squishy Robots? The name comes from the design – deployable, shape-shifting (squishy) sensor robots in the form of a geodesic ball.

NASA spin-off

First responders will be the first beneficiaries of Squishy Robots. A spin-off of NASA research, produced by Squishy Robotics and coming out of the Berkeley, CA-based SkyDeck accelerator (a program that couples investors and inventors in start-ups), the robots are equipped with six cameras for 360-degree video, GPS, and interchangeable chemical, biological and radiological sensors. When dropped 400 feet from a drone or 600 feet from a helicopter, the sensor robots land on the ground and give emergency responders immediate situational awareness of terrain and hazardous materials – even before responders arrive on the scene.

“Our first launch was with disaster response applications and fire departments because we can feel their pain,” Dr. Alice Agogino, co-founder and CEO of Squishy Robotics, told ISHN in an exclusive interview. The data can save lives and reduce costs.” In many disaster events, first responders don’t know the hazards of the situation they are entering.

In the past 20 years, 400 first responders have died going into dangerous environments, according to Dr. Agogino.

Another fact: in the past five years, fire department purchases nationwide of drones has doubled each year.

Beta tests

Field tests of Squishy Robots are currently being conducted by the Los Angeles County Fire Department and the Houston Fire Department. In these beta tests, firefighters can test the robots in simulated hazmat emergencies.

Once air-dropped, the sensor-enabled robots provide real-time video surveillance and report back on hot zone air quality and hazard levels. First responders positioned a safe distance from the danger, monitor the scene with a user interface to get the visual and the chemical/biological/radiological concentration readings.

The robots can carry customized payloads, depending on the type of emergency incident. “Sending the robots in a hazmat situation is different than monitoring wild fires,” says Dr. Agogino. “Hazmat customization uses four or five sensors in the payload.”

Hazmat situations are just the first application of Squishy Robots. Dr. Agogino says her company is looking at the military and utility markets. “We’re very interested in fire safety, given the increasing number of fires in California alone,” she says. “Three thousand fires were caused by sparks from falling transmission lines. If fire departments sent out aerial vehicles and dropped the sensor robots, fires could have been detected and contained earlier.”

Dr. Agogino sees Squishy Robots complementing the wireless, remote monitoring becoming increasing common in industrial hygiene. “It’s all part of the larger Internet of Things. It’s always great to have fixed sensors; in a disaster scenario you could couple information from the fixed sensors with the emergency deployed sensors. We call that sensor fusion.”

As a start-up, Dr. Agogino’s Squishy Robotics, Inc. is interested in suggestions for other applications. She suggests visiting or emailing