Software and Soft Robotics!

Hi everyone! 

Olin hoodie

This is Harrison here to report on the latest of my gap year experiences. At the start of my gap year I wanted to gain an understanding of what engineering was like in the real world. My quest began at a startup called DroneCast where each day was nothing more than controlled chaos. I now find myself working at Skylink Technology Inc., an established company that designs and builds satellite test equipment. When I started working there, the first thing I noticed was that the environment had the same structural feel as high school. The office has a fairly rigid structure, and I pretty much know what I’m going to be doing on any given day. As a member of their software department, my three core “classes” are user interfaces, debugging old code and writing new features for their products. Of these three, designing user interfaces is my favorite because it allows my creativity a chance to come out and play. All in all, I am very happy with my work experience.

Despite having a full time job in software, I still consider myself to be a mechanical engineer at heart. After work and on weekends, I indulge in projects that feed my fascination with soft robotics. One of the things that struck me is how invisible soft robotics appears to be to the general public. On the internet, DIY soft robotics projects are few and far between. I think that this is partly because only a small percentage of people have the equipment needed to make them.

Traditionally 3D printers are needed to make soft robot molds. However, this technology is fairly expensive and requires knowledge of CAD software to be used effectively. Soft robots just do not have that wow factor (yet!) that would entice a person to spend several thousand dollars on a quality 3D printer. As part of my attempt to help grow the soft robotics community, I developed a way to make robot molds out of cardboard and hot glue.  My molds can be easily made by hand and do not require any special skills. Most importantly, using cardboard molds makes entering soft robotics as a hobby affordable since it lowers the initial investment needed from a few thousand dollars to under $50.

Coincidentally, the inspiration for these molds came from a conversation I had with Liani, a current Olin student.  We were discussing hobbies I could take up during my gap year and one of the things that came up was cardboard carpentry. A few weeks later while I was frustrated with a failed print job, I remembered our conversation and decided to try and make a mold out of cardboard instead.

Soft Mold

First mold.

First robot.

While working out the specifics for these molds, I have completed quite a few projects; however, my favorite is my three fingered grabber. This pneumatically powered robot is strong enough to lift a 5 pound dumbbell and delicate enough to lift a bottle cap. Its soft nature allows it to survive abuse that most rigid robots can’t. I can repeatedly hit it with a hammer and even run it over with my car and the robot suffers no damage.

Mold and robot

Soft grabber mold and robot.

I am hoping that this will be enough of a -WOW- factor to get a few people interested in soft robotics. If anyone is interested in how to make soft robots using cardboard forms, I wrote a general tutorial that can found on YouTube here. My tutorial for a slightly more advanced 3 finger grabber can be found on www.instructables.com here .

In what’s left of my free time I am mentoring my high school’s FIRST robotics team. We are looking forward to our first competition.

In the coming months I will be working on a new project. If you look up soft robots on the internet there are a lot of robots that exhibit some form of locomotion. However, very few are good at moving or could be described as agile. It is my goal to put a dent in this void by the end of my gap year.  

Posted in: Gap Year Blogs