Robotics Startup Exec Talks Hazmat Sensors

There are some really cool things happening in the field of robotics with direct application to hazmat response and safety. One of the companies pushing the tech development envelope is Squishy Robotics that is finding new ways to monitor hazmat situations from a safe distance. We sat down with Squishy’s co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Deniz Dogruer to learn what they are up to now and what to expect in the future.

What inspired your initial idea?

The initial technology was developed as part of a collaborative research project between the Berkeley Emergent Space Tensegrities lab at UC Berkeley and NASA Ames. The objective was to develop a lander/rover carrying delicate scientific monitoring equipment that could orbit and land on a planet, then roam around to collect data. Our design did not need special landing gear; instead the tensegrity-protected payload of monitoring equipment could be dropped on a planet and bounce until it safely came to rest and then begin roving to collect data and specimens.

How did that idea evolve into what we see today?

Beyond space exploration and scientific monitoring, the capability to rapidly deploy and deliver sensors to difficult-to-reach locations seemed like something that could be useful on Earth as well. We started our customer discovery efforts by conducting interviews within a wide range of industries, but ultimately saw a unique capability we could provide first responders. We spoke with over 200 first responders. With each interview, we became more motivated to develop a technology that could provide time-critical, life-saving information that would enable them to make data-informed decisions to keep themselves and community members safe. Our entire team found that was a very motivating purpose and a constructive mission.

Our 4-GasPLUS sensor payload is equipped with LEL, O2, CO, H2S sensors, six cameras and GPS, and can be dropped by drones, helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft (from more than 1,000 feet) or hand thrown into position to enable persistent ground-based monitoring without requiring first responders to hand carry sensors into potentially dangerous situations for initial assessment. A notional use case for our technology is illustrated in this video of an overturned tanker training scenario we conducted. We are pilot testing our 4-GasPLUS sensor robot with three fire departments: Southern Manatee Fire & Rescue in Florida, Tulsa Fire Department in Oklahoma, and most recently Olathe Fire Department in Kansas.

What did you learn from early failures?

We had to learn to design products that could deliver both safety and speed because that is the juggling act that first responders have to balance during rapidly evolving emergency situations. One of our pilot partners said, “it needs to pass the 3 a.m. test,” meaning first responders need to be able to rapidly deploy and easily use any technology, even when responding to a 3 a.m. call. The “3 a.m. test” has become an internal metric we use when evaluating our product design and usability.

What have you learned from taking your product into the hazmat market?

During a hazmat call, everything slows down. Initially, the focus becomes to gather as much information as quickly as possible about the current situation to determine proper PPE requirements and develop a response and mitigation plan. There is great potential for robotic technologies to provide this time-critical, life-saving information while reducing the need for first responders to put themselves in danger. These tools need to be intuitive and easy-to-use, as well as supply clear and concise data that is easily actionable. However, given the situations in which these robotic technologies will be deployed, there are additional requirements of the technology, such as decon-ability and intrinsic safety. 

What has been the most profound story you have heard from a customer?

As more and more fire departments start utilizing drones, the value of the drone as a force multiplier has become more evident. When we describe our rapidly deployable sensors as a “drone multiplier” to firefighters, it immediately makes sense to them. The quickness and agility of a drone is unparalleled, but if persistent monitoring is needed, a drone’s capability to loiter on a target is limited. Our drone-deployable sensors leverage the quickness of a drone and enable a single drone to rapidly position several sensors into targeted locations and provide persistent monitoring, all while keeping the drone available for aerial assessments or other tasks.

We have learned a lot from the extended user testing we’re conducting with our pilot partners; their feedback has played an instrumental role in the iterative refinement of our technology. While the unique capability to drop sensors from a drone is what initially motivated our pilot partners to test our technology, they have shared that the ability to throw sensors into position is just as valuable. While the drones aren’t deployed on all calls, hand deployment has opened a wide range of uses, including indoor deployments where our sensors are thrown into rooms before entry, and then can be left behind for persistent monitoring even after the entry team has moved on.

What’s the biggest misconception about robotics’ role in emergency response (specifically hazmat)?

No robotics solutions will replace first responders all together. The role of robotics will be as a force-multiplier and risk-mitigator — working alongside first responders. Robotics can help make situations safer by collecting visuals and data before first responders enter an environment so that when they do enter, it is with as much information as possible.

For a hazmat team, what’s the biggest barrier to entry into a UAV/robotics?

In my opinion, cost is one of the biggest barriers in the adoption of UAV/robotics, or any new technology, for hazmat teams or even public safety more generally. The first responders we have spoken to definitely have an interest in testing new technologies. But making that a reality often means they need to write grants to purchase such equipment.

Additionally, this long budgeting and grant writing process results in long sales cycles, which in turn is a barrier for new start-ups looking to enter the public safety market. Young start-ups are often in a position to quickly innovate and are more agile than larger, more established companies, but don’t always have the working capital to bridge long sales cycles.

What problem keeps you up at night?

It can be hard to be the “brand-new” thing. I think that people, very sensibly, want to be sure that a technology can work for them. This becomes even more important in the high-stakes environments that first responders operate in. The great thing about our tensegrity robots is that they carry and deliver technologies — chemical sensors, cameras, GPS, radios — that emergency responders are already using. We just need to get the message out that our product’s mobility and durability will make it easier to use such technologies.

What does the near-term future look like for your company?

In the near-term, we’re focused on continued improvement of our rapidly deployable 4-gas sensor based on first responder feedback and growing our product line of rapidly deployable sensors to include additional sensor payload combinations. We are expanding the camera and sensor capabilities and experimenting with new features, such as audio sensors, in our efforts to provide more and better tools to our emergency response and public safety customers.

What does the long-term future look like for your company?

We are doing some very exciting work with methane sensing. Our sensor payloads could be used by the oil and gas industry to detect and measure leaks in pipelines and oilfields. Many such leaks may occur in areas that are hard to monitor because of distances or lack of infrastructure. Our payloads can easily be deployed to such remote areas and transmit the data that would allow companies to make the repairs or replacements that can help the industry meet the goals of reducing greenhouse gasses.

What’s your boldest prediction for UAV/robotics future role in hazmat and emergency response?

The integration of drones into hazmat response has opened the door for new technologies to become more widely accepted and integrated into existing hazmat workflows and will serve as a catalyst for other new innovative solutions to be adopted. There are rapid technological advancements in a wide range of areas, such AI/ML and augmented reality just to name a few. We’re on the verge of seeing some amazing changes within the fire service.

In my opinion, the critical component to providing truly transformative capabilities to first responders will be to enable an ecosystem where multiple technologies can work in collaboration with one another. No one technology is the end all, be all solution. Each technology brings its own unique value to first responders, and when these technologies are working together the capabilities and information provided can be almost limitless.

Imagine the drones in the air and the robots on the ground seamlessly sharing information to inform next steps. Imagine this data being seamlessly shared with incident commanders and first responders on scene. Imagine this data being prioritized, displayed and shared with who needs it when they need it. After all, the key isn’t just providing more data, it is providing actionable data. The key is providing the right data to the right people when they need it, in a way that they can easily digest and act upon.

For more information about Squishy Robotics, visit their website.