Harvard Makes Soft Robotics Open-Source

The Soft Robotics Toolkit offers the technology to anyone with interest and an idea.

Thanks in no small part to the advent of supercheap Arduino microcontrollers and their even cheaper off-brand kin, making robots has become populist in a way that would have baffled engineers just a couple of decades ago. Robots, the classic symbol of the techno-future, are now bopping around in the suburban garages of most anyone with $40 or so to spend on parts and with a bit of programming acumen, or at least the desire/ability to learn a bit of code.

Thanks to a new toolkit released by researchers at Harvard University, those garage robot tinkerers can now expand into the realm of "soft" robots, e.g. robots made to squish and deform like mechanical slugs or eels. It's hoped that these sorts of bots might be able to do things like assist in surgical operations or search and rescue missions involving tight, confined spaces (like a collapsed mine). But the whole point of releasing something like the Soft Robotics Toolkit is to put a technology's future into the hands of really anyone with a new idea. That's the power of open-sourcing.

Image: Eliza Grinnell, Harvard SEAS

"The toolkit includes an open source fluidic control board, detailed design documentation describing a wide range of soft robotic components (including actuators and sensors), and related files that can be downloaded and used in the design, manufacture, and operation of soft robots," the toolkit's website explains. "In combination with low material costs and increasingly accessible rapid prototyping technologies such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and CNC mills, the toolkit enables soft robotic components to be produced easily and affordably."

In return, the Harvard researchers get access to new data sources, experimental setups, tutorials, and yet more case studies, all thanks to you, the garage robot-builder and now research collaborator. "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," said Conor Walsh, an associate professor of engineering at Harvard, in a statement.

"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," the kit's website explains. "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 toolkit is described in a paper by Walsh et al in the current edition of the journal Soft Robotics (which is somewhat ironically behind a paywall).

"One thing we've seen in design courses is that students greatly benefit from access to more experienced peers—say, postdocs in a research lab—who can guide them through their work," Dónal Holland, a visiting lecturer at Harvard, said. "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."

So: get to work.