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!


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.


Our Hack Chats are live community events on the 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

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

Walk It Off, Healing Robots

For many of us, our first robots, or technical projects, were flimsy ordeals built with cardboard, duct tape, and high hopes. Most of us grow past that scene, and we learn to work supplies which require more than a pair of kitchen scissors. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Iowa State University have made a material which goes beyond durable, it can heal itself when wounded. To a small robot, a standard hole puncher is a dire assailant, but the little guy in the video after the break keeps hopping around despite a couple of new piercings.

The researcher’s goal is to integrate this substance into bio-inspired robots which may come to harm in the field. Fish-like robots could keep swimming after a brush with a bit of coral or a curious predator. Robot snakes could keep slithering after a fall or a gravel road.

Of course, robotic simulacrums are not the only ones who can benefit from healing circuitry. Satellites are prey to punctures from errant space debris.

Continue reading “Walk It Off, Healing Robots”

Turn Your Teddy Bear Into A Robot With Yale’s “Robotic Skin”

Despite what we may have seen in the new Winnie the Pooh movie, our cherished plush toys don’t usually come to life. But if that’s the goal, we have ways of making it happen. Like these “robotic skins” from Yale University.

Each module is a collection of sensors and actuators mounted on a flexible substrate, which is then installed onto a flexible object serving as structure. In a simple implementation, the mechanical bits are sewn onto a piece of fabric and tied with zippers onto a piece of foam. The demonstration video (embedded below the break) runs through several more variations of the theme. From making a foam tube (“pool noodle”) crawl like a snake to making a horse toy’s legs move.

There’s a serious motivation behind these entertaining prototypes. NASA is always looking to reduce weight that must be launched into space, and this was born from the idea of modular robotics. Instead of actuators and sensors embedded in a single robot performing a specific function, these robotic skins can be moved around to different robot bodies to perform a variety of tasks. Such flexibility can open up more capabilities while occupying less weight on the rocket.

This idea is still early in development and the current level prototypes look like something most of us can replicate and improve upon for use in our projects. We’ve even got a controller for those pneumatics. With some more development, it may yet place among the ranks of esoteric actuators.

Continue reading “Turn Your Teddy Bear Into A Robot With Yale’s “Robotic Skin””

Hold The Salt And Butter, This Popcorn Is For A Robot

Popcorn! Light and fluffy, it is a fantastically flexible snack. We can have them plain, create a savory snack with some salt and butter, or cover with caramel if you have a sweet tooth. Now Cornell University showed us one more way to enjoy popcorn: use their popping action as the mechanical force in a robot actuator.

It may be unorthodox at first glance, but it makes a lot of sense. We pop corn by heating its water until it turns into steam triggering a rapid expansion of volume. It is not terribly different from our engines burning an air-fuel mixture to create a rapid expansion of volume. Or using heat energy to boil water and trigger its expansion to steam. So a kernel of popcorn can be used as a small, simple, self-contained engine for turning heat energy into mechanical power.

Obviously it would be a single-use mechanism, but that’s perfectly palatable for the right niche. Single-use is a lot easier to swallow when popcorn is so cheap, and also biodegradable resulting in minimal residue. The research paper demonstrated three recipes to harness popping corn’s mechanical energy, but that is hardly an exhaustive list. There’s an open invitation to brainstorm other creations to add to the menu.

Of course, if you prefer candy over popcorn, you could build a robot actuator out of licorice instead.

Either way, the robot uprising will be delicious.

[via IEEE Spectrum]

Continue reading “Hold The Salt And Butter, This Popcorn Is For A Robot”