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Soft robotics ‘toolkit’ features everything a robot-maker needs

21 September 2014

A new resource provides both experienced and aspiring researchers with the materials needed to design, build, and operate robots made from soft, flexible materials.

Do it yourself soft robotics (photo: Eliza Grinnell, Harvard SEAS)
Do it yourself soft robotics (photo: Eliza Grinnell, Harvard SEAS)

With the advent of low-cost 3D printing, laser cutters, and other advances in manufacturing technology, soft robotics is emerging as an increasingly important field. Using principles drawn from conventional rigid robot design, but working with pliable materials, engineers are pioneering the use of soft robotics for assisting in a wide variety of tasks such as physical therapy, minimally invasive surgery, and search-and-rescue operations in dangerous environments.  

The Soft Robotics Toolkit, unveiled by researchers from several Harvard University labs in collaboration with Trinity College Dublin, is an online treasure trove of downloadable, open-source plans, how-to videos, and case studies to assist users in the design, fabrication, modelling, characterisation, and control of soft robotic devices.

It will provide researchers with a level of detail not typically found in academic research papers, including 3D models, bills of materials, raw experimental data, multimedia step-by-step tutorials, and case studies of various soft robot designs.

“The goal of the toolkit is to advance the field of soft robotics by allowing designers and researchers to build upon each other’s work,” says Assistant Professor Conor Walsh of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and a Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

By creating a common resource for sharing design approaches, prototyping and fabrication techniques, and technical knowledge, the toolkit’s developers hope to stimulate the creation of new kinds of soft devices, tools, and methods.

According to Walsh, founder of the Harvard Biodesign Lab, soft robotics is especially well suited to shared design tools because many of the required components, such as regulators, valves, and microcontrollers, are largely interchangeable between systems.

Dónal Holland, a visiting lecturer in engineering sciences at SEAS and graduate student at Trinity College Dublin, is one of the lead developers of the toolkit and is especially interested in the toolkit’s potential as an educational resource.

“One thing we’ve seen in design courses is that students greatly benefit from access to more experienced peers [postdocs in a research lab, for example] who can guide them through their work,” Holland says. “But scaling that up is difficult; you quickly run out of time and people. The toolkit is designed to capture the expertise and make it easily accessible to students.”

Just as open-source software has spurred far-flung innovation in computing, 'open design' hardware platforms, coupled with advances in computer-aided engineering and more accessible prototyping capabilities, have the potential to foster remote collaboration on common mechanical engineering projects, unleashing crowdsourced creativity in robotics and other fields.


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