QoLT Robotics Research Animates Disney’s “Big Hero 6” Film

Achievement date: 
2015
Outcome/accomplishment: 

One of the stars of the Disney animated movie Big Hero 6 is a friendly, inflatable, soft robot called Baymax. This huggable character was inspired by robotics research conducted by Prof. Chris Atkeson and then-PhD candidate Siddharth Sanan at the Quality of Life Technology Center (QoLT), an NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC) based at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. 

To learn more about QoLT’s soft robot research and technology, see:

Impact/benefits: 

Big Hero 6 features a group of college students, half of them girls, who are self-described nerds but who become heroes through their creativity and ingenuity in using science and engineering to invent spectacular “gizmos,” such as Baymax, to accomplish their mission. Thus, the film itself makes a compelling statement to its young viewers that science and engineering are exciting and empowering for girls and minorities. (One of the strong female characters is a Latina.) Baymax himself is based on soft-robot technology that is designed for safe physical interaction with humans, such as in caring for people with disabilities, or for use in surgery. These robots can also be manufactured at a cost that is orders of magnitude lower than for traditional robots.

As one film reviewer noted, “Big Hero 6 celebrates intelligence, creativity, scientific exploration, ingenuity, and classroom camaraderie more than any other family film has in recent memory, and it's for that reason I think every parent should plan a family trip to the theater to see this gem on screen.”

Explanation/Background: 

Much of the research pursued at QoLT is aimed at improving the quality of life of people with a wide range of disabilities. Two of QoLT’s research thrusts, on Mobility and Manipulation and on Human-System Interaction, use robotics in highly creative ways to extend the capabilities of humans—for example, by providing paraplegics with personal mobility and blind people with various assistive technologies. Indeed, movie director Don Hall conceived the idea of Baymax being a personal health care companion (nurse) robot through his exposure to QoLT research while learning about soft robotics. The fictional, balloon-like robot reflects a growing field of research at CMU called soft robotics.  Prof. Atkeson says that mobile robots made from soft materials—fabrics, balloons, light plastics—offer advantages over metal robots that include much lower weight as well as lower cost and greater safety when operating near people. Some soft robots will be wearable, others will be disposable.

CMU and Pitt have been working together on nurse/care robots and environments for more than 15 years, with funding from ENG, CISE, and the ERC Program. These efforts have included the Nursebot Project (NSF), the training program NSF Interdisciplinary Research Training Opportunities in Assistive Technology and the QoLT ERC. In the 1990s, Prof. Atkeson was at Georgia Tech, working on caregiving environments such as the Aware Home as part of the Future Computing Environments Project. The Girls of Steel (a high school FIRST Robotics team hosted by CMU) inspired aspects of the characters of Big Hero 6.