These Inflatable Pouch Motors Will Make Building Robots as Easy as Using Stickers

If you can put a sticker on an origami, you can build yourself some cool little robots

2 min read
These Inflatable Pouch Motors Will Make Building Robots as Easy as Using Stickers
Image: Ryuma Niiyama

How easy is it to build a robot? Not very. How easy could it be to build a robot? Well, what if we try just sticking printable, inflatable actuators made of plastic onto origami (or anything else)? As Ryuma Niiyama and colleagues from the University of Tokyo and MIT have discovered, it really is that easy.

We covered these “pouch motors” (or “free-form planar soft actuators,” if you want to get technical) last August, in the context of robots with the potential to be entirely printable.

The actuators get printed on a custom-made fabrication machine that's nothing more than a 3-axis CNC holding a rod that can be heated, like a soldering iron. Moving the iron over two sheets of thermoplastic bonds them, leaving patterns of interlocking, inflatable pouches, and there’s your actuator. Hooking up a tube to the actuator with a syringe on one end allows the user to inflate and deflate the actuator, which will drag along anything that you’ve decided to stick it to.

To see how well this works in practice with people who have zero robotics experience, the researchers set up a user study:

Two 90-minutes animated origami workshops were held in a museum to study how children interact with sticky actuators. There were twenty participants at each workshop, all accompanied by their parents. The instructor demonstrated how to fold origami models and the use of sticky actuators. Then the participants were asked to make their own creations.

We observed that the combination of single-motion sticky actuators with a simple origami object could generate diverse behaviors and stories. [The figure on the right] shows animated origami objects from the workshop. As quoted from one participant, “The actuator was very interesting, and depending on the origami, there were different challenges”: the sticky actuator adds more challenges to the already complex art of folding origami. The actuation was even viewed as a new dimension to the origami art, as one participant mentioned: “I definitely enjoyed it. It added a new dimension to an art I love”.

We're also (somewhat selfishly) interested in how these pouch actuators might work in a home environment, especially if they’re scalable upwards a bit. Anyone with a 3D printer could construct a pouch motor in minutes to whatever specification they wanted: maybe you want to automatically open and close your pantry for your snack-fetching robot. Or maybe your laundry-folding robot needs some help with a stubborn sock drawer. The only potential issue is finding a source for the pressurized air needed to drive these things, but hey, there are always rockets.

[ Paper ]

Thanks Ryuma!

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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