How To Build Soft Robots

If you’ve ever wondered how to engineer a flexible robot that can move like a flesh-and-blood creature, have we got some tools for you. Thanks, that is, to an open-source collaboration that has outlined exactly how to create and program such “soft” robots.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), in collaboration with Trinity College Dublin, released the Soft Robotics Toolkit that provides people with everything they need to know to build this squishy technology, including tutorials, example source code, descriptions of all the supplies required, links to suggested suppliers, and multimedia descriptions of how to build and control the robots.

Why Make Soft Robots?

The group defines soft robotics this way:

Soft robotics is a growing field that takes inspiration from biological systems to combine classical principles of robot design with the study of soft, flexible materials. Many animals and plants are composed primarily of soft, elastic structures which are capable of complex movement as well as adaptation to their environment. These natural systems have inspired the development of soft robotic systems, in which the careful design of component geometry allows complex motions to be “pre-programmed” into flexible and elastomeric materials…. The inherent compliance of soft robots makes them highly adaptable to a wide range of tasks and environments. In particular, they are ideally suited for interactions with humans, from assisting with daily activities to performing minimally invasive surgery.  

Soft robots are made of elastomer, a type of polymer similar to rubber. They can be programmed to perform behaviors such as grasping a human hand or crawling across the ground. Eventually, researchers say that soft robots may be instrumental in things such as physical therapy, minimally invasive surgery, and search-and-rescue operations.

By using soft robotics, engineers have created projects like a pneumatic glove for rehabilitating hand movement, a cardiac simulator that mimics the precise movements of a human heart, and a device for thumb rehabilitation. All these case studies can be found on the site.

Pick Up Those Tools

The researchers designed the toolkit to be a learning resource for high-school and university students interested in building soft robots. Two cohorts of Harvard students have used the kit so far. To provide others with the same opportunity, the researchers are now making the kit available to the world.

“We intend to continue to develop the material on the website, and are inviting soft robotics researchers, educators, and students from other institutions to get involved in using and developing the resource,” Dónal Holland, visiting lecturer in engineering sciences at the Harvard SEAS, said in an email interview. “We hope for this to spread far beyond Harvard.”

They are now talking to educators in the U.S., Ireland and Brazil about how to use the toolkit, he said.

Of course, creating soft robots isn’t for everyone—some projects require equipment such as a vacuum chamber and centrifuge. Although the site provides explicit technical details, some hobbyists may lack the skills to model their own softbots.

But researchers are optimistic that students of all ages can use the toolkit to learn about soft robotics. It may also serve as a resource for the soft robotics research community at large, providing others with details and information that’s not easily available elsewhere.

“By pooling this information, we hope to advance research in the filed by allowing people to build upon each other’s work rather than reinventing the wheel,” Holland said. 

Photo and video courtesy of Harvard SEAS

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