Bringing Pneumatics To The Masses With Open Source Soft Robotics

Soft robotics is an exciting field. Mastering the pneumatic control of pliable materials has enormous potential, from the handling of delicate objects to creating movement with no moving parts. However, pneumatics has long been overlooked by the hacker community as a mode of actuation. There are thousands of tutorials, tools and products that help us work with motor control and gears, but precious few for those of us who want to experiment with movement using air pressure, valves and pistons.

Physicist and engineer [tinkrmind] wants to change that. He has been developing an open source soft robotics tool called Programmable Air for the past year with the aim of creating an accessible way for the hacker community to work with pneumatic robotics. We first came across [tinkrmind]’s soft robotics modules at World Maker Faire in New York City in 2018 but fifty beta testers and a wide range of interesting projects later — from a beating silicone heart to an inflatable bra — they are now being made available on Crowd Supply.

We had the chance to play with some of the Programmable Air modules after this year’s Makerfaire Bay Area at Bring A Hack. We can’t wait to see what squishy, organic creations they will be used for now that they’re out in the wild.

If you need more soft robotics inspiration, take a look at this robotic skin that turns teddy bears into robots from Yale or these soft rotating actuators from Harvard.

See a video of the Programmable Air modules in action below the cut. Continue reading “Bringing Pneumatics To The Masses With Open Source Soft Robotics”

Air Bubble Characters Float Along This Unique Scrolling Display

We’ve seen a lot of unique large-format scrolling message boards on these pages, but most of them use some sort of established technology – LEDs, electromechanical flip-dots, and the like – in new and unusual ways. We’re pretty sure this air-bubble dot matrix display is a first, though.

While it may not be destined for the front of a bus or a train station arrivals and departures board, [jellmeister]’s bubble display shows some pretty creative thinking. It started with a scrap of multiwall polycarbonate roofing – Corotherm is the brand name – of the type to glaze greenhouses and other structures. The parallel tubes are perfect for the display, although individual tubes could certainly be substituted. A plastic end cap was fabricated; air nozzles in each channel were plumbed to an air supply through solenoid valves. An Arduino with a couple of motor driver hats allows pulses of air into each channel to create reasonably legible characters that float up the tube. The video below shows it in use at a Maker Faire, where visitors could bubble up their own messages.

It took some tweaking to get it looking as good as it does, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. We wonder whether colored liquid might help, or perhaps adding a Neopixel or even a laser to each channel to add some contrast. Maybe something to cloud the water slightly would help; increasing the surface tension with a salt solution might make the bubbles more distinct. We doubt it’ll ever have the contrast ratio of a flip-dot display, but it certainly has a charm all its own.

Continue reading “Air Bubble Characters Float Along This Unique Scrolling Display”

Friday Hack Chat: Air Hacking

The field of soft robotics sure seems a lot less mature than your standard servo motor and metal framed robot arms. Maybe that’s because building a robot to flex is harder, and maybe it’s because the best methods of constructing soft robotics have only been around for a decade or so. Maybe, though, it’s because it’s hard to control air.

For this week’s Hack Chat, we’re going to be discussing Air Hacking with [Amitabh Shrivastava]. [Amitabh] is a grad student at ITP, NYU studying creative technology, where he makes interactive art, tools for research, and experiments with various materials. Lately he has been developing Programmable-Air, a pneumatic controller for soft robotics. We’ve seen his work at ThiMaker Faire, and it’s an awesome project in this year’s Hackaday Prize.

In this chat we will be talking about DIY soft robotics. Soft robotics is a growing field with a lot of low hanging fruits within grasp of the hobbyist maker. In addition to sharing experience and resources about building your own soft robots, we will talk about actuation! Tune in to see how you can use pneumatics in your next project.

During this week’s Hack Chat, we’ll be discussing:

  • Pneumatics
  • Programmable Air
  • Soft Robotics
  • Methods of adding pneumatics to your project

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the Air Hacking Hack Chat and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.

join-hack-chat

Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Friday, October 26th, at noon, Pacific time. If time zones got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io.

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Giant Robot Arm Uses Fluid Power, Not Electronics

Fair warning that [Freerk Wieringa]’s videos documenting his giant non-electric robot build are long. We’ve only watched the first two episodes and the latest installment so far, all of which are posted after the break. Consider it an investment to watch a metalworking artist undertake an incredible build.

The first video starts with the construction of the upper arm of the robot. Everything is fabricated using simple tools; the most sophisticated tools are a lathe and a TIG welder. As the arm build proceeds we see that there are no electronic controls to be found. Control is through hydraulic cylinders in a master-slave setup; the slave opens a pneumatic valve attached to the elbow of the arm, which moves the lower arm until the valve closes and brings the forelimb to a smooth stop. It’s a very clever way of providing feedback without the usual sensors and microcontrollers. And the hand that goes at the end of the arm is something else, too, with four fingers made from complex linkages, all separately actuated by cylinders of their own. The whole arm looks to be part of a large robot, probably about 3 or 4 meters tall. At least we hope so, and we hope we get to see it by the end of the series.

True, we’ve seen terrifyingly large robots before, but to see one using fluid power for everything is a treat.

Continue reading “Giant Robot Arm Uses Fluid Power, Not Electronics”

Maker Faire NY: Programmable Air

At this year’s World Maker Faire in New York City we’re astonished and proud to run into some of the best projects that are currently in the running for the Hackaday Prize. One of these is Programmable Air, from [Amitabh], and it’s the solution to pneumatics and pressure sensing in Maker and IoT devices.

The idea behind Programmable Air is to create the cheapest, most hacker-friendly system for dealing with inflatable and vacuum-based robotics. Yes, pneumatic robotics might sound weird, but there’s plenty of projects that could make use of a system like this. The Glaucus is one of the greatest soft robotic projects we’ve ever seen, and it turns a bit of silicone into a quadruped robot with no moving parts. The only control you have over this robot is inflating one side or the other while watching this silicone slug slowly crawl forward. This same sort of system can be expanded to a silicone robot tentacle, too.

On display at the Programmable Air booth were three examples of how this device could be used. The first was a simple pressure sensor — a weird silicone pig with some tubing coming out of the nostrils was connected to the Programmable Air module. Squeeze the pig, and some RGB LEDs light up. The second demo was a balloon inflating and deflating automatically. The third demo was a ‘jamming gripper’, basically a balloon filled with rice or coffee grounds, connected to a pump. If you take this balloon, jam it onto an odd-shaped object and suck the air out, it becomes a gripper for a robotic arm. All of these are possible with Programmable Air.

Right now, [Amitabh] has just finalized the design and is getting ready to move into mass production. You can get some updates for this really novel air-powered robotics platform over on the main website, or check out the project over on Hackaday.io.

Shop-Made Pneumatic Cylinders From PVC And Plywood

You see a lot of pneumatic actuators in industrial automation, and for good reason. They’re simple, powerful, reliable, and above all, cheap. Online sources and fluid-power suppliers carry a bewildering range of actuators, so why would anyone bother to make their own pneumatic cylinders? Because while the commercial stuff is cheap, it’s not PVC and plywood cheap.

Granted, that’s not the only reason [Izzy Swan] gives for his DIY single-acting cylinder. For him it’s more about having the flexibility to make exactly what he needs in terms of size and shape. And given how ridiculously easy these cylinders are, you can make a ton of them for pennies. The cylinder itself is common Schedule 40 PVC pipe with plywood endcaps, all held together with threaded rod. [Izzy] cut the endcaps with a CNC router, but a band saw or jig saw would do as well. The piston is a plywood plug mounted to a long bolt; [Izzy] gambled a little by cutting the groove for the O-ring with a table saw, but no fingers were lost. The cylinder uses a cheap bungee as a return spring, but an internal compression spring would work too,. Adding a second air inlet to make the cylinder double-acting would be possible as well. The video below shows the cylinder in action as a jig clamp.

True, the valves are the most expensive part of a pneumatic system, but if nothing else, being able to say you made your own cylinders is a win. And maybe you’ll get the fluid-power bug and want to work up to DIY hydraulics.

Continue reading “Shop-Made Pneumatic Cylinders From PVC And Plywood”