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3D print your own robot using Harvard's open-source soft robotics 'toolkit'
Posted by 3DP4E

By Alec | 3Ders

Anyone who visits our website with any regularity will have noticed that 3D printing is being more and more used by hobbyists to construct little robots; just last week we reported on a remote controlled 3D printed quadcopter and an underwater drone-like robot. This is hardly surprising, as 3D printing is especially suitable to create unique parts at a moment's notice and robots are exceptionally fun projects to get involved in.

However, it's also partly the result of a growing availability of open-source software that makes robotics available to all, even those with little programming skills. And just a few weeks ago, Harvard scientists released the latest in a line of software that will help hobbyists the world over tinker with their very own robots.

However, being Harvard scientists, they've taken things to a whole new level. For their brand-new Soft Robotics Toolkit is a comprehensive database of knowledge, experience and examples that will help all those robot tinkerers out there expand into the realm of 'soft' robots. And what are those? Well, soft robots take their inspiration from biological systems, where many plants and animals are composed of primarily soft, elastic structures (like our skin, for instance). This means that these robots move beyond the classic, square plastic shapes, but are instead made of soft, flexible materials.

As these researchers explained on their website, soft robotics presents the builder with a host of new options and possibilities:

The careful design of component geometry allows complex motions to be "pre-programmed" into flexible and elastomeric materials. The use of compliant materials to embed intelligence in the mechanics of the body enables designers to simplify the more complex mechanisms and software control systems used in traditional, rigid robotics. 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.

Obviously, this all sounds very impressive, but will also quickly scare off many Sunday-afternoon hobbyists, who just want to mess around a bit. And this is no surprise, as the field of soft robotics is usually confined to high-level engineers at places like Harvard. This is verified by Dónal Holland, an Irish visiting lecturer at Harvard.

And even their students have some difficulties in entering this field: 'One thing we've seen in design courses is that students greatly benefit from access to more experiences peers – say, postdocs in a research lab – who can guide them through their work. But scaling that up is difficult; you quickly run out of people'.

And this is exactly where this Soft Robotic Toolkit comes in; 'the toolkit is designed to capture the expertise and make it easily accessible to students'. However, it's not just limited to students, but purposely made open-source to place the technology's future into the hands of really anyone with a new idea or a creative drive.

Conor Walsh, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at Harvard, affirmed this, stating on theHardvard website that '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.' Walsh went on to say that soft robotics can especially benefit from this level of openness, as it involves an unprecedented level of components and systems.

To therefore help people along their way, Walsh and Holland have designed the educational toolkit to be a veritable online treasure trove of downloadable, open-source plans, how-to videos, and case studies to assist users in the various processes that are involved with creating a soft robot. Case studies available at the time of the writing include pneumatic gloves, a soft prosthetic hand, a cardiac simulator, a transparent loud speaker and other objects. All its content is based on the experiences and prototypes made by numerous scientists and laboratories, many of which are associated with Harvard.

The toolkit will also provide researchers with 3D models, bills of materials, experimental data, and much more. Each section of the site even focuses on a soft robotic device or component, and includes the following sections: design, fabrication, modeling, testing, case studies and downloads.

As they stated on their website, this database provides all the necessary information. '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.'

However, the Harvard researchers are also set to benefit from this generous open-source toolkit. By sharing all their knowledge and experience, they hope to inspire both students and hobbyists to generate data themselves, as well as experimental setups, tutorials and more case studies. As Walsh said, '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.'

The Soft Robotics Toolkit is therefore a very impressive and inspiring testimony to open-source progress. Its contents, meanwhile, should get robotic hobbyists the world over itching to enter a whole new field of robotics.

Those of you who would like to know more about this project, can also take a look at the scientific paper detailing the soft robotics toolkit. It can be found here.

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