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Programmable-Air

Programmable-Air is a hardware kit that allows makers to control inflatable soft robots.

  • Programmable-Air kit

  • Programmable-Air crowdfunding introduction video.

    Programmable-Air crowdfunding introduction video.

  • Using Programmable-Air to pick and place sprinkles on a doughnut.

  • An early hand made prototype with a silicone sign

  • CAD render

  • Programmable-Air circuit boards ready for assembly

What it does

Programmable-Air is a hardware kit that allows makers to control airflow for inflatable soft robots. The project aims to bring soft robotics innovation from research labs to classrooms.


Your inspiration

For my soft robotics class, I wanted to make a crawling soft robot. I realized that it's easy to make a soft robot by 3d printing a mold and casting silicone. But there were no inexpensive tools to control it. So, I decided to build one.


How it works

Programmable-Air can be thought of as a controllable air pump. The output tube goes into a soft robot, and with some simple code, the kit allows you to push air into and out of the soft robot. The kit can be expanded to have three outputs, controlling three independent soft robots. The kit brings everything required to control an inflatable soft robot into one circuit board. It has two air pumps that can inflate and deflate objects, three air valves to route the airflow, a pressure sensor for feedback and a microcontroller to control everything. A custom Arduino library allows users to write code with simple functions like 'blow()', 'suck()', 'readPressure()' etc.


Design process

The guiding principle of this project was to make something cost-effective, portable, and easy to use. I started by ordering dozens of air pumps, and valves and pouring through pressure sensor datasheets to find the combination that would work together and be inexpensive. I ended up using pumps generally used in blood pressure cuffs, valves from Keurig machines and a custom pressure sensor circuit. I designed custom circuit boards and CNC milled them, trying to fit everything in the smallest form factor. I made the kit expandable with additional valves and added user input buttons and lights for output. It took eight prototypes to get something functional. I made the project open source on GitHub and allowed my artist friends to borrow it to make projects with. I presented it a World Maker Faire, NYC where I realized that hundreds of people wanted to buy it. So, I got a custom PCB manufactured, going through three more prototypes to end up with something even smaller, easier, and cheaper to assemble. Through word of mouth, I sold fifty hand assembled kits. I launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise enough money for a factory run and ended up raising more than twenty thousand dollars. I'm currently manufacturing 250 kits to fulfill these orders.


How it is different

Programmable-Air is the cheapest, smallest and easiest to use kit for controlling inflatable soft robots. For some reason, makers a have not yet embraced air as a means of actuation for robotics, so there are not many similar kits. The two projects that can be compared with Programmable-Air are Pneuduino from MIT and Soft Robotics Toolkit from Harvard. Compared to them Programmable-Air is- * Cheaper - by a factor of five * More portable - because it does not require a separate compressor and can be powered from a battery pack * Easier to use - A simple Arduino library with plenty of examples, and does not require any assembly to use * Supports vacuum by default


Future plans

I'm currently manufacturing 250 kits to fulfill crowdfunding pre-orders. I'm also updating the ProgrammableAir.com website to include more tutorials, projects and a forum for users to share queries. I'm working on a larger version of the kit for inflatable architecture models, and a smaller version for wearable inflatables. I'm speaking with a number of groups to bring Programmable-Air to schools and colleges. I'm also designing project specific kits.


Awards

World Maker Faire NYC - Editor's choice Award; Ada Lovelace fellowship - Open Source Hardware Association; Nominated for Microchip Get Launched Contest(pending decision); Nominated for Tool Foundry Accelerator


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