Soft Robotic System For In Situ 3D Bioprinting And Endoscopic Surgery

The progress of medical science has meant increasingly more sophisticated ways to inspect and repair the body, with a shift towards ever less invasive and more effective technologies. An exciting new field is that of in situ tissue replacement in a patient, which can be singular cells or even 3D printed tissues. This in vitro approach of culturing replacement tissues comes however with its share of issues, such as the need for a bioreactor. A more straightforward approach is printing the cells in vivo, meaning directly inside the patient’s body, as demonstrated by a team at the University of New South Wales Sydney with a soft robot that can print layers of living cells inside for example a GI tract.

In their paper, the team — led by [Dr Thanh Nho Do] and PhD student [Mai Thanh Thai] — describe the soft robot that is akin to a standard endoscope, but with a special head that has four soft microtubule artificial muscles (SMAM) for three degrees of freedom and fabric bellow actuators (FBA) that provide the motion desired by the remote controller. The system is configured in such a way that the operator inputs the rough intended motions, which are then smoothed by the software before the hydraulics actuate the head.

In a test on a simulated GI tract, the researchers were able to manipulate a prototype, and deposit a range of materials from the installed syringes. They envision that a system like this could be used as with endoscopes and laparoscopy to not only accurately deposit replacement cells inside the patient’s body, but also to perform a range of other surgical interventions, whereby the surgeon is supported by the system’s software, rather than manipulating the instruments directly.

Complex Movements From Simple Inflatables, Thanks To Physics

Inflatable actuators that change shape based on injected pressure can be strong, but their big limitation is that they always deform in the same way.

The Kresling pattern, which inspired the actuator design.

But by taking structural inspiration from origami, researchers created 3D-printed actuators that show it is possible to get complex movements from actuators fed by only a single source of pressure. How is this done? By making the actuators physically bi-stable, in a way that doesn’t require additional sources of pressure.

The key is a modified design based on the Kresling pattern, with each actuator having a specially-designed section (the colored triangles in the image above) that are designed to pop out under a certain amount of positive pressure, and remain stable after it has done so. This section holds its shape until a certain amount of negative pressure is applied, and the section pops back in.

Whether or not this section is popped out changes the actuator’s shape, therefore changing the way it deforms. This makes a simple actuator bi-stable and capable of different movements, using only a single pressure source. Stack up a bunch of these actuators, and with careful pressure control, complex movements become possible. See it in action in two short videos, embedded just below the page break.

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Can Robots Give Good Hugs?

We could all use a hug once in a while. Most people would probably say the shared warmth is nice, and the squishiness of another living, breathing meatbag is pretty comforting. Hugs even have health benefits.

But maybe you’re new in town and don’t know anyone yet, or you’ve outlived all your friends and family. Or maybe you just don’t look like the kind of person who goes for hugs, and therefore you don’t get enough embraces. Nearly everyone needs and want hugs, whether they’re great, good, or just average.

So what makes a good hug, anyway? It’s a bit like a handshake. It should be warm and dry, with a firmness appropriate to the situation. Ideally, you’re both done at the same time and things don’t get awkward. Could a robot possibly check all of these boxes? That’s the idea behind HuggieBot, the haphazardly humanoid invention of Katherine J. Kuchenbecker and team at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany (translated). User feedback helped the team get their arms around the problem.

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Squishy Robot Hardware Does Well Under Pressure

If your jealousy for Festo robots is festering, fret not! [mikey77] has shown us that, even without giant piggy banks, we can still construct some fantastic soft robotics projects with a 3D printer and a visit to the hardware store. To get started, simply step through the process with this 3D Printed Artificial Muscles: Erector Set project on Instructables.

In a nutshell, [mikey77] generously offers us a system for designing soft robots built around a base joint mechanism: the Omega Muscle. Fashioned after its namesake, this base unit contains an inflatable membrane that expands with pressure and works in tandem with another Omega Muscle to produce upward and downward angular movement. Each muscle also contains two endpoints to connect to a base, a gripper, or more Omega Muscles. Simply scale them as needed and stack them to produce a custom soft robot limb, or use the existing STLs to make an articulated soft gripper.

This project actually comes in two parts for robot brawns and brains. Not only does [mikey77] take us through the process for making Omega muscles, we also get a guide for building the pressure system designed to control them. Taken together, it’s a feature-complete setup for exploring your own soft robotics projects with a great starting project. Stay tuned after the break for a demo video in action. There’s no audio, but we’re sure you’ll be letting off an audible pssssh in satisfaction to follow along.

It’s not every day that we see FFF-based 3D printers making parts that need to be airtight. And [mikey77’s] success has us optimistic for seeing more air muscles in future projects down the road. In the meantime, have a look at the silicone-silicon half-breeds that we’ve previously caught pumping iron.

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The BornHack Badge Gets A Bubble

In a year of semiconductor shortages it’s a difficult task to deliver an electronic conference badge, so this year’s BornHack camp in Denmark had an SAO prototyping board as its badge. Some people made blinkies with theirs, but that wasn’t enough for [Inne] who had to go a step further with a light-up pneumatic bubble badge. It’s based upon a previous project producing silicone inflatable bubbles, but in a portable badge form.

On the front of the PCB is a multi-colour LED for illumination, while on the back is a small microcontroller board, a pressure sensor, and a motor driver circuit. A small air pump and battery sits in a pocket connected by a cable and a flexible tube, allowing the bubble to inflate at will. An interesting detail was the use of a cut-down hypodermic needle to carry the air through the silicone wall of the bubble. When seen up close at the camp it was an unnervingly organic effect, if there’s an uncanny valley of badges this is it.

We don’t see much in the way of soft robotics on these pages, so this happy crossover with BadgeLife is a special treat. It’s not entirely alone here though.

flow IO module options

Get Your Flex On With The FlowIO Platform

Hackaday Prize 2021 entry FlowIO Platform promises to be to pneumatics what Arduino is to Electronics. The modular platform comprises a common controller/valve block, a selection of differently sized pumps, and a few optional connectivity and sensing blocks. With Arduino software support as well as as Javascript and web-GUI, there’s a way to program this no matter what the level of experience the user has.

flowIO exploded view
flowIO exploded view from http://www.softrobotics.io/flowio

This last point is a critical one for the mission [Ali Shtarbanov] from the MIT Media Lab is setting out for this project. He reminds us that in decades gone by, there was a significant barrier to entry for anyone building electronics prototypes. Information about how to get started was also much harder to by before the internet really got into gear.

It’s a similar story for software, with tools like Scratch and Python lowering the barrier to entry and allowing more people to get their toes wet and build some confidence.

But despite some earlier work by projects like the Soft Robotics Toolkit and Programmable-Air, making a start on lowering the bar for pneumatics support for soft robotics, and related applications, the project author still finds areas for further improvement. FlowIO was designed from the ground-up to be wearable. It appears to be much smaller, more portable and supports more air ports and a greater array of sensing and connectivity than previous Open Source work to date.

Creative Commons Hardware

Whilst you can take all the plans (free account signup required) and build yourself a FlowIO rig of your very own, the project author offers another solution. Following on from the Wikipedia model of free sharing and distribution of information, FlowIO offers its hardware for free, for the common good. Supported by donations to the project, more hardware is produced and distributed to those who need it. The only ask is that redundant kits are passed on or returned to base for upgrade, rather than landfill.

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Robotic Gripper From A Squishy Ball

Soft robotic grippers have some interesting use cases, but the industrial options are not cheap. [James Bruton] was fascinated by the $4000 “bean bag” gripper from Empire Robotics, so he decided to build his own.

The gripper is just a flexible rubber membrane filled with small beads. When it is pushed over a object and the air is sucked out, it holds all the beads together, molded to the shape of the object. For his version [James] used a soft rubber ball filled with BBs. To create a vacuum, he connected a large 200cc syringe to the ball via a hose, and actuated it with a high torque servo.

It worked well for small, light objects but failed on heavier, smooth objects with no edges to grip onto. This could possibly be improved if the size and weight of the beads/BBs are reduced.

For some more soft robotics, check out this soft 3D printed hand, and the flexible electrically driven actuators. Continue reading “Robotic Gripper From A Squishy Ball”