Speaking about Soft Robots at NASA Ames

Official Visitor

Mark Micire (research scientist at the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA Ames) and Yun Kyung Kim (human-robot​ iInteraction​ ​designer at NASA Ames) were incredibly generous in offering me an opportunity to speak with the AstroBee and Super Ball Bot groups at NASA Ames. We’ve been keeping an eye on Super Ball Bot over at Super-Releaser, particularly because of the way the teams working on it are bringing simulation and iterative prototyping together to solve the open-ended problems involved in designing a robust control system for bots that can configure themselves into nearly infinite shapes.

The talk focused on the opportunities to use compliant materials to replicate organic mechanisms, the ways Super-Releaser solves problems in soft robotics, and the way we integrate multiple disciplines into our research. Afterwards I was able to see the work of the Super Ball Bot team – developing novel compliant actuators in addition to refining the systems that power their current Ball Bot prototypes.

I was also able to see the AstroBee, which was being evaluated on the biggest granite surface plate I’ve ever seen. I got to talk with Yun about her experience as a designer integrating into a team of engineers, which is its own challenge in itself, and the goals of the AstroBee project. It’s going to serve as a platform to develop behaviors for human/machine interaction in 0g, which is a problem I’ve never even considered.

“Iterating on Soft Robots” talk at Maker Faire

Kari Love and I gave a talk at Maker Faire last year detailing how the maker mindset (tinkering to get an intuitive sense of the rules governing the system, hands-on learning, fast frugal iteration, and sharing) can be transformative for research into fundamental technologies and chronically intractable problems.

The key factor is going from zero to a working understanding of the ground truths underlying the problem you’re trying to solve as quickly as possible. From historical surveys of how transformative technologies have been developed in the past (like TRIZ), deeply focused research is no match for playful learning and interdisciplinary exploration.

These are the techniques we use at Super-Releaser to get things done given how new the field is and how much it relies on an intuitive understanding of the mechanics of soft systems. When there isn’t a robust framework to simulate before experimentation, you need to rely on experience and spot tests.

Aidan wowing the Maker Faire audience with his soft robot designs

We were also very proud to have our intern, Aidan Leitch, give his own talk on his soft robotics research. It was very well attended and people seemed excited to see live demos of his soft robot designs.

Super-Releaser has signed a book deal with Maker Media

Super-Releaser has begun work on a book on soft robotics for Maker Media. Kari Love and I are writing a book that provides a history of the field of soft robotics, tutorials demonstrating its basic principles, more sophisticated projects like a control system and entire soft robots, and the potential of applied soft robotics from medical devices to human spaceflight to interplanetary exploration. As far as we can tell this will be the first book published demonstrating practical soft robotics.

The Kestrel – an open source soft robotic gripper we’ve designed for the book which you’ll be able to replicate at home

We are working with Roger Stewart to complete the text before the end of this year. Fingers crossed it will be available in bookstores in early 2018.

Super-Releaser Graduates from NYCEDC’s ELAB Program

Super-Releaser was selected to participate in NYCEDC’s 2016 Elab mentorship program with our Neucuff medical device concept.

Elab is a six month program organized by Mary Howard that supports early-career researchers in the medical field, providing them with classes, business development expertise, mentorship, and access to resources like venture funding, legal experts, and research databases. Super-Releaser was selected to continue the development of our Neucuff and explore options for developing it into a fully realized medical device.

Kari Love and I graduated from the program following a well received final summation of our research on the Neucuff and its transformative potential for children suffering from Cerebral Palsy.

You can learn more about the Elab program here.

Speaking about physical prototyping and soft robotics research at Construct3d at Duke University

Matt Griffin of Ultimaker invited me to speak at Construct3d, an event they organized with Duke University.

Construct3D was a conference bringing together engineers, designers, coders, and educators all advancing research and physical fabrication on the cutting edge of their fields. I used the platform to speak about our research process at Super-Releaser, and how it can be applied to problem solving and R&D for emerging technologies.

I was also invited to speak on a panel moderated by Matt Griffin that included Sean Charlesworth, Michael Curry, Darlene Farris-LaBar, Eric Schimelpfenig, and Laura Taalman. I had the opportunity to speak about my history in special effects animatronics, the role of 3d printing in my research at Super-Releaser, lessons learned in working with research clients, and what’s next for Super-Releaser.

The physical fabrication panel

You can learn more about the event in Ultimaker’s wrap up post here.

“My Robot Will Crush You With its Soft Delicate Hands!” talk at 32C3

I’ve been going to CCC for years, but this is the first time I’ve gotten a talk accepted in one of the main venues. It was thrilling to share my research with such a wide audience. I spoke about the kinematics of soft bodied organisms, designing soft robots, and future applications for compliant mechanisms. Below is a complete video of the talk and the Q&A session afterwards.

You can view my slides directly here.

Header photo by Sascha Ludwig.

Talking Compliant Mechanisms at NYU

Yesterday I gave a talk about incorporating soft robotics, compliant mechanisms, and biomimetic structures into your engineering toolbox at NYU. I’ve been interested in how compliant mechanisms can reduce the computational complexity of tasks like manipulation and locomotion and this talk was a good opportunity to share some of my ideas on the subject.

The general thesis is that biology presents a huge trove of solutions to problems in robotics especially directed at optimizing the amount of sensing you’re devoting to understanding an environment and the amount of computation you’re devoting to navigating that environment. Compliance is an essential tool for creating systems that reduce a wide range of potential inputs into a simplified space of positive outputs.

Case in point:
robotfall VS jTEGGMJ

You can find my slides here. If an audio/video copy becomes available I will update this post with a link.

Header image by Andrew Conklin.

The Neucuff – A Soft Robotic Exoskeleton

Over the past six months Kari Love and I have been developing a soft robotic elbow orthotic for Cerebral Palsy therapy. It’s still in the early stages of prototyping and testing, but it’s making rapid progress. If all goes as planned, it should be in the hands of a team of CP doctors specializing in robotic orthotics in the near future.

Here’s a bit more background from the Hackaday page:

The Neucuff is an extension of the soft robotics development I’ve been doing for the past three years as lead scientist at Super-Releaser. After creating manufacturing techniques for a few different flavors of soft robot, I felt it was time to find some practical applications for the technology.

I approached a ton of people about where soft robotics could be best applied. I talked with civil engineers about exploratory robots for mapping pipes in construction sites. I talked with NASA scientists about soft robots in space. The most promising ideas came from my father, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in arthroscopy and shoulder reconstruction, and my robotics mentor, who has spent the last ten years in the medical device field.

They both described problems with therapeutic robots that a soft robotics approach could solve. Soft robots are good at spreading force evenly across a large area. Soft robots are conformal so they can fit a wide variety of applications and environments by design. This makes them an ideal candidate for Cerebral Palsy therapy.


You can find out more detail along with downloads, video, and schematics here.

Soft Robots (Actually) in Space

When I spoke at the SpaceApps conference, I hadn’t realized how close I was to working with NASA in a much more official capacity. A few months earlier I developed some prototypes for Final Frontier Design, a company devoted to the design and engineering of spacesuits. This was in my role as lead scientist at Super-Releaser and the end goal was proving to NASA that mechanical counterpressure garments (like I described in my talk) could be a practical reality with some time and development. I’m pleased to announce that they approved our proposal and we will be working on a new generation of EVA gloves over the next six months.

What I’m most excited about is the opportunity to bring all of the elements of engineering, prototyping, and digital manufacture for compliant materials to create and test all of the iterations of the glove we’ll be going through. There are thrilling mechanisms and intricate problems that I believe are only workable with compliance in mind. After all, we’re interfacing with the most mechanically complex manipulator the body has to offer.

Hopefully I’ll be able to update as progress is made. I will still continue my development work at Super-Releaser and research on the Neucuff, though the frequency of updates may drop off.

Title image by Lisandro Sanchez.