Experiments In Soft Robotics

[Arnav Wagh] has been doing some cool experiments in soft robotics using his home 3D printer.

Soft robots have a lot of advantages, but as [Arnav] points out on his website, it’s pretty hard to get started in the same way as one might with another type of project. You can’t necessarily go on Amazon and order a ten pack of soft robot actuators in the way you can Arduinos.

The project started by imitating other projects. First he copied the universities who have done work in this arena by casting soft silicone actuators. He notes the same things that they did, that they’re difficult to produce and prone to punctures. Next he tried painting foam with silicone, which worked, but it was still prone to punctures, and there was a consensus that it was creepy. He finally had a breakthrough playing with origami shapes. After some iteration he was able to print them reliably with an Ultimaker.

Finally to get it into the “easy to hack together on a weekend” range he was looking for: he designed it to be VEX compatible. You can see them moving in the video after the break.

Continue reading “Experiments In Soft Robotics”

Hackaday Podcast 042: Capacitive Earthquakes, GRBL On ESP32, Solenoid Engines, And The TI-99 Space Program

Hackaday Editors Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys talk turkey on the latest hacks. Random numbers, art, and electronic geekery combine into an entropic masterpiece. We saw Bart Dring bring new life to a cool little multi-pen plotter from the Atari age. Researchers at UCSD built a very very very slow soft robot, and a broken retrocomputer got a good dose of the space age. A 555 is sensing earthquakes, there’s an electric motor that wants to drop into any vehicle, and did you know someone used to have to read the current time into the telephone ad nauseam?

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

Direct download (59 MB)

Places to follow Hackaday podcasts:

Continue reading “Hackaday Podcast 042: Capacitive Earthquakes, GRBL On ESP32, Solenoid Engines, And The TI-99 Space Program”

Electricity Makes Soft Robotics More Like Us Meatbags

Building a future where robots work alongside humans relies heavily on soft robotics. Typically this means there will be an air compressor or a hydraulic system nearby, taking up precious space. But it doesn’t have to.

Engineers at the UC-San Diego Jacobs School have created a soft robotics system that uses electricity to control flexible actuators, much like our brains move our muscles. It works like this: sheets of heat-sensitive liquid crystal elastomer are sandwiched between two layers of standard elastomer. These layers are rolled into cylinders that can twist and bend in different directions depending on which of its six element(s) get electricity. Light up all six, and the tube contracts, forming the foundation for a good gripper. The team also built a tiny walker, pictured above.

The project is still in its infancy, so the actuators are slow to bend and even slower to return to their original shape, but it’s still a great start. Imagine all the soft robotic projects that can get off the ground without being shackled by the bulk and weight of an air compressor or fluid handling system. Watch it do various sped-up things after the break, like claw-machine gripping a bottle of chocolate rocks.

Speaking of delicious candy, edible soft robotics is totally a thing.

Continue reading “Electricity Makes Soft Robotics More Like Us Meatbags”

[Jessica] Is Soft On Robot Grippers

It is an old movie trope: a robot grips something and accidentally crushes it with its super robot strength. A little feedback goes a long way, of course, but futuristic robots may also want to employ soft grippers. [Jessica] shows how to build soft grippers made of several cast fingers. The fingers are cast from Ecoflex 00-50, and use air pressure.

A 3D-printed mold is used to cast the Ecoflex fingers, which are only workable for 18 minutes after mixing, so it’s necessary to work fast and have everything ready before you start.

Continue reading “[Jessica] Is Soft On Robot Grippers”

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”

Custom Inflatables Are Only A Laser Beam Away

Carl Sagan one said “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” It might not be a very accurate description of the relative difficulty level of baking, but the logic is sound enough: there’s often a lot of ground work that needs to be to covered before you hit your ultimate goal. A perfect example of this principle is the inflatable raft that [ralph124c] hopes to eventually create; before he can set sail he has to perfect making balloon animals with his laser cutter.

In the long run, the raft will be constructed from sheets of TPU coated fabric that are fused together with a hot iron. But before he spends the time and money on building the real thing, he wants to do some scaled down tests to make sure his design works as expected. He makes a cryptic remark about learning the hard way that inflatables are prone to bouts of strange behavior, and out of an overabundance of caution we’ll just take his word for it.

He hoped to test his designs with the much cheaper LDPE film, but he found that the hot iron didn’t fuse it together in the way he was hoping. His mind turned to his 60 watt laser cutter, and wondered if the desired effect could be achieved by turning the power down as low as possible and quickly moving across the material.

His first attempts either blew right through the film or did absolutely nothing, but eventually he had the bright idea to move the laser farther from the LDPE. This put the beam out of focus, which not only expanded the area it would cover, but reduced the energy being delivered to the surface. With a bit more experimentation, he found he was able to neatly weld the pieces of material together. He even found that he could increase the power slightly to cut through the film without having to adjust the laser focus. With the ability to create complex inflatable shapes, perhaps [ralph124c] will create balloon version of Carl Sagan or an apple pie to celebrate.

Of course, this technology isn’t limited to birthday balloons and model rafts. The ability to quickly and easily produce custom inflatable shapes could be a huge boon to anyone working in soft robotics, and we’ve even seen similar concepts applied to haptic feedback systems.

[Thanks to Arthur for the tip.]

Soft Rotating Pneumatic Actuators

When we think of pneumatic actuators, we typically consider the standard varieties of pneumatic cylinder, capable of linear motion. These can be referred to as “hard” actuators, made of rigid components and capable of great accuracy and force delivery. However, “soft” actuators have their own complementary abilities – such as being able to handle more delicate tasks and being less likely to injure human operators when used in collaborative operations. The Whitesides Research Group at Harvard University has undertaken significant research in this field, and released a paper covering a novel type of soft pneumatic actuator.

The actuator consists of a series of soft, flexible sealed chambers which surround a wooden dowel in the center. By applying vacuum to these various chambers, the dowel in the center can be pulled into up to eight different positions. It’s a unique concept, and one we can imagine could have applications in various material processing scenarios.

The actuator was built by moulding elastomers around 3D printed components, so this is a build that could theoretically be tackled by the DIYer. The paper goes into great detail to quantify the performance of the actuator, and workshops several potential applications. Testing is done on a fluid delivery and stirring system, and a tethered robotic walker was built. The team uses the term cVAMS – cyclical vacuum actuated machine – to describe the actuator technology.

The world of soft robotics is a hot bed of development, and we look forward to further work in this field. It’s not just Harvard, either – we’ve seen interesting work from Yale and from the Hackaday community too!