Hack Chat Transcript, Part 1

A event log for Soft Robotics Hack Chat

Robotics doesn't have to be hard

Dan MaloneyDan Maloney 10/27/2021 at 20:030 Comments

Dan Maloney12:01 PM
OK, folks, welcome to the last Hack Chat of October! I'm Dan, and along with Dusan I'll be moderating for Ali Shtarbanov today as we talk about soft robotics.

Nicolas Tremblay12:01 PM
Not a group, but assisting devices plenty

Inne12:01 PM
awesome topic

Dusan Petrovic12:01 PM
Hello and welcome!

Ali Shtarbanov12:01 PM
Hi everyone!

Dan Maloney12:01 PM
I saw Ali sign on before - ah, there you are. Welcome!

Inne12:01 PM
I really like the flowio it seems super solid

Dan Maloney12:02 PM
Can you start us off with a little about your background, Ali?

morgan joined  the room.12:02 PM

Ali Shtarbanov12:02 PM

Helen joined  the room.12:02 PM

Ali Shtarbanov12:02 PM
I am an HCI Researcher, System designer, and Ph.D. candidate at MIT Media Lab. I develop open-source platforms, tools, and other enabling technologies that empower researchers, designers, artists, and makers with new technological opportunities to rapidly bring projects and ideas to life.

Ali Shtarbanov12:02 PM
My current work focuses on developing and deploying novel tools and resources for soft robotics and programmable materials to make prototyping and innovation in those fields more seamless and more accessible. The FlowIO I developed is currently being used by over a dozen HCI and robotics researchers in about 10 countries. My prior research was on multimodal interactive interfaces and mid-air haptic feedback.

Ali Shtarbanov12:03 PM
Prior to MIT Media Lab, I got degrees in EE and Physics

RichardCollins12:03 PM
@Nicolas Tremblay Seems a lot to unconnected efforts to go through. Suggestion for how to help organize for efficient covering all the bases? Sorry to interrupt, just rather urgent. Thanks.

Sandeep Zechariah George joined  the room.12:04 PM

Inne12:05 PM
I would love if the hobbyist community would embrace soft robotics more

do you know if there are there any hidden place where soft robotics hobbyist hang out.

Dan Maloney12:05 PM
So do you feel like pneumatic or hydraulic actuators are what put the "soft" in soft robotics? Or are there electromechanical actuators that can do the same kind of jobs?

Dan Maloney12:06 PM
For example, I caught this the other day in my feed:

Dan Maloney12:06 PM


jordanbrandes12:06 PM
that blew my mind Dan

Nicolas Tremblay12:07 PM
I've seen and read a lot about research on soft robotics, but There isn't many basis to get you off the ground and running

Dan Maloney12:07 PM
Not really sure how to classify something like that

Ali Shtarbanov12:07 PM
Through the website, which I launched earlier this year, I have been getting several requests and questions from people from all kinds of backgrounds. Most are from academia but also a few hobbyists.

Ali Shtarbanov12:08 PM
"Soft" is about the compliance in the actuators, and there are multiple actuation mechanisms that are possible. Pneumatic, Hydraulic, Electromagnetic, Tendon-driven, to name a few.

Ali Shtarbanov12:09 PM
Here is a useful resource I created as an introduction to the field:

Ali Shtarbanov12:09 PM


SoftRobotics.IO | Intro to Soft Robots

Intro to Soft Robotics Workshop How To Make (Almost) Anything, Fall 2019 Systems built from highly-compliant materials with mechanical properties similar to those found in living tissues. Many kinds of soft robots exist, but in this workshop we will focus primarily on pneumatically actuated soft robots.

Read this on SoftRoboticsIO

Ali Shtarbanov12:10 PM
And another one more specific to modular soft robots:

Ali Shtarbanov12:10 PM


SoftRobotics.IO | Modular Soft Robots

Expand/Collapse All Sections Pros + Versatility + Robustness - modular upgrades & repairs + Low cost for manufacturing & maintenance + Adaptability to changing task & environments + Ease of repair by changing only damaged modules + Ease of transport & storage (e.g Space Launches) + Scalable + A small set of modules can enable infinite morphologies Cons - Complex and time-consuming to design - Higher cost than application-specific soft robots - Still in their infancy - Couplings are most critical - Couplings require custom design - Choice of couplings still very limited.

Read this on SoftRoboticsIO

Inne12:11 PM
Nice can I join this website if I (am trying to) develop a commercial open hardware soft robotics board?? I saw it in the beginning of the Hackaday prize but the non commercial made me a bit hesitant, sorry. that said your community looks really cool.

Inne12:12 PM
Also another question: What is a technique in soft robotics that when you learned to use it opened a world for you.

Ali Shtarbanov12:12 PM
The noncommercial part is a temporary measure and will be lifted eventually.

CocaKolev joined  the room.12:12 PM

Inne12:13 PM

anfractuosity12:14 PM
With pneumatic soft robotics am i right in thinking you make use of 2 pumps, a vacuum pump and compressor pump? (you can't use a single pump for both?)

CocaKolev12:14 PM
Might have missed if this was already discussed, but thoughts on soft muscles materials that can contract with electrical charge? Probably dielectrics, been working on a wrist wrap that can squeeze gently in a pulsatile manner but have really been struggling to find what materials to use that can contract like that. Pneumatics were too bulky

scott.e12:15 PM
Pneumatics can have feeds at each end of cylinder. Open one for extend, open other to contract.

you_ran_away12:16 PM
Hi, in design schools they've been teaching soft robots building for a while, but a palm sized prototype is basically how far it went, at least in my school. Based on your experience, do you see the possibility to scale soft robots up? Is it possible with FlowIO or it's difficult without industry level machines?

Ali Shtarbanov12:16 PM
I work in multiple fields, and I see soft programmable materials / soft robotics, as just another "tool" I can use in projects that I do and that people are doing across disciplines and fields. Just like electronics prototyping is now done by people form all kinds of fields including nontechnical ones, I belive that prototyping with programmable materials will become just as ubiquitous in the near future as prototyping with electronics is today.

CocaKolev12:18 PM
Have you seen them used much in biomedical E? That's where I'm coming from with my previous question, it feels like the community is so small

Inne12:18 PM
@anfractuosity I think you could get away with 1 pump if you do some clever solenoid valve setup. But I usually let them deflate by themselves.

Ali Shtarbanov12:18 PM
There are some research groups doing work in biomedical - both at MIT and Harvard. Here is a list of more groups:

Inne12:19 PM
Which is super lazy design I know :(

Ali Shtarbanov12:19 PM


SoftRobotics.IO | Labs

Read this on SoftRoboticsIO

Ali Shtarbanov12:19 PM
If you find other groups doing related work, let me know and I will add them to this list

Sergei V. Bogdanov joined  the room.12:20 PM

Inne12:20 PM
Is there any other domain in the maker community you would watch with great interest as it colides (colaborates) with soft robotics (techniques)

CocaKolev12:20 PM
Awesome, thanks! I'll see what they're working on. Would love to see the field grow, especially since material engineering is still a bit behind on this

scott.e12:20 PM
or follow the biological model and have opposing "muscles". Fill (contract) one side as other side extends. Vent first and fill 2nd to reverse. Vent all to go limp.

Ali Shtarbanov12:21 PM
One pump is used for vacuum, one for inflation. This gives me multiple pneumatic options at each port, including inflation, vacuum, release, flow variability, etc. Additionally, the design of FlowIO is such that you can put the pumps in series or in parallel to increase the pressure or flow-rate, respectively.

Inne12:21 PM
@Ali Shtarbanov you are missing the Amolf institute in Amsterdam (The Netherlands).

Ali Shtarbanov12:22 PM
Great, I will add it. Can you send me a link?

anfractuosity12:22 PM
Cool, makes sense are the vacuum pump and inflation pump, then connected together in series? And then you turn either one on/off?

kjansky112:23 PM
Is there any research involving "soft" robotics applications in extreme environments such as radiation and even high temperature or pressure conditions?

Inne12:23 PM


Dr. ir. Bas Overvelde - group leader Soft Robotic Matter - AMOLF

The Soft Robotic Matter group focuses on the design, fabrication and fundamental understanding of materials that are capable of autonomously adapting to - and even harnessing - variations in their environment.

Read this on AMOLF

Ali Shtarbanov12:24 PM
@anfractuosity Take a look at the pneumatic circuit in the research paper and the paragraph explaining the pneumatic architecture. Link is on the website.

you_ran_away12:25 PM
Are there any other product on the market that utilises this technology beside the VR Glove HaptX? I wonder if the material is durable enough for daily uses.

scott.e12:25 PM
Any differentiation tips for soft versus companion versus compliant? Companion robots aren't all soft. Soft robots are all companion. etc.

Ali Shtarbanov12:25 PM
@kjansky1 Yes, some of the groups that have contacted me are working on such projects, but I am not sure if their works are published yet or not.

RichardCollins12:25 PM
Years ago I monitored contracts for things like magnetic levitation trains. The magnetic control for positioning, movement, direction are extremely powerful, small and can work with common electrical controls.

I found this May 2021 review in Annual Review of Control, Robotics and Autonomous Systems - Motion Control in Magnetic Microrobotics: From Individual and Multiple Robots to Swarms at

I have concentrated on sensors and controls for systems requiring millions of independent modules and coordinating and working under system wide rules and directions. Use local autonomous rules, and then up the scale to achieve global results. There are equivalent nano and atomic scale (picometer) methods besides the millimeter and micrometer scale devices. "Soft" can be handled with covering, mixtures, microwelded mostly empty structures. Sorry to interrupt, I have to get going to something else. Will study soft methods more fully. Needed for assistive robots for the elderly, sick, unconscious, paralyzed, weak. All need some level of "soft" and "safe" for human care. Also equivalent for pets, animals, lab animals, plants and other living things where sensors and soft touch control is needed.

Ali Shtarbanov12:27 PM
When I try to scroll up to see other questions, I am unable to, so please repost if I haven't answered

Dan Maloney12:28 PM
Yeah, sorry about the scrolling problem.

Inne12:28 PM
This will go away if you scroll up super hard and then the autoscroll gets disabled

Nicolas Tremblay12:28 PM
*yes HaD chat scrolling is notoriously hard*

Inne12:29 PM
What is a technique in soft robotics that when you learned to use it opened a world for you.

Ali Shtarbanov12:29 PM
To ansewer an earlier question, here is one project that I had the pleasure to be a part of

Inne12:32 PM
Is there any other domain in the maker community you would watch with great interest as it collides (collaborates) with soft robotics (techniques)

CocaKolev12:32 PM
Ali how small do you think the pumps could be made for wearable applications

Ali Shtarbanov12:32 PM
@Inne I learned that there were a lot of missing tools that I could build for this space and thus help a ton of people in the process save a huge amount of time. One of the researchers using FlowIO for instance said it saved them over 3 months! Imagine what you could do in 3 months!

Ali Shtarbanov12:33 PM
@inne Haptic Feedback

Ali Shtarbanov12:34 PM
@CocaKolev The "Small" module for FlowIO is the one using the smallest pumps I could find on the market.

Ali Shtarbanov12:34 PM
...that were still inexpensive.

Inne12:35 PM
Do you do haptic feedback purely with silicone or is it combined with other parts like vibration motors. Is there a way to convey vibration motors from a distance when combined with soft robotics.

Ali Shtarbanov12:36 PM
In pneumatics, the components that exist on the market are quite large and bulky because that's what most uses for them are. They can be made much smaller however. There just needs to be more demand to incentivize such development.

you_ran_away12:36 PM
Just reposting my last question, in design schools they've been teaching soft robots building for a while, but a palm sized prototype is basically how far it went, at least in my school. Based on your experience, do you see the possibility to scale soft robots up?

you_ran_away12:37 PM
The silicone part was a little hard to cast, experience from a workshop I attended...

kjansky112:37 PM
Progress in soft robotics will eventually require moving away from the purely mechanical oriented activation design, example.

Reversible Electronic Solid–Gel Switching of a Conjugated Polymer

Idea to merge the concept of electrochemical actuation of conjugated polymer films with that of stimuli-responsive gels, we aim to achieve electronic and reversible control over the solid-to-gel phase transition, and to achieve electronic control over large volumetric changes of a defined bulk.

Inne12:39 PM
I heard about these piezo electric pumps (that are the latest tech in breast milk land). They seem super awesome but quite expensive.

Ali Shtarbanov12:39 PM
There are multiple ways to do haptic feedback. My prior research on Haptics - was completely independent of my current work - I was using toroidal vortices for instance, to deliver haptic feedback at a distance. You can take a look at my M.S. Thesis chapter 1 for a literature review of various haptic approaches.

Dan Maloney12:40 PM
"Toroidal vortices" kind of sounds like those "sound wave shooters" you see that use a flexible diaphragm to project a pulse of air across the room

Nicolas Tremblay12:40 PM
toroidal vortice, like a smoke ring?

Ali Shtarbanov12:41 PM
Yes. The project I did was called AirTap

Ali Shtarbanov12:43 PM
As far as different actuation approaches for soft robotics, absolutely true. Pneumatics is just the most common one used today so that's why I built a tool for it. But I made it modular in the hardware and software. And now, I am working on developing new modules that would enable other kinds of actuations approaches - electromagnetic, tendon-driven, hydraulic, thermal, etc.

Inne12:43 PM
@kjansky1 I agree that advanced materials have a lot of selling points. They just scare me a bit because they seem quite complex and hard to source. How difficult is it in your opinion to get started using them.

Inne12:45 PM
Also I really admire people that can build the soft robot behavior into the design of the robot so they just need to apply a constant stream of air.

Ali Shtarbanov12:46 PM
@you_ran_away take a look at Skylar Tibbits' lab from MIT for some larger scale examples in the domain of design.

ezitis1551 joined  the room.12:46 PM

CocaKolev12:49 PM
@Ali Shtarbanov do you have examples of actuations that could shorten if arranged in a circle? To decrease the diameter/circumference equally on all sides? Electromagnetic sounds like the best way to go about that since with pneumatic, the pump side would not be able to contract and would pull the other sides towards itself

CocaKolev12:49 PM
If that visualization makes any sense

Dan Maloney12:49 PM
Almost sounds like an iris

Ali Shtarbanov12:49 PM
@Inne Today, there is lack of resources for getting started with using advanced materials. And the long-term goal of the website to become the go-to-place for anything having to do with soft robotics, progrmmable materials, tools related to those, projects, resources, ability to ask questions, talk with others working in this domain, and ability to share your own projects, and so much more.

CocaKolev12:50 PM
Yea same idea Dan, just flattened so you could squeeze something through in the middle of the "circle" formed, like peristaltic motion

Dan Maloney12:51 PM
Gratuitous "sphincter" reference...

Dan Maloney12:51 PM
But that's what you're talking about, really

kjansky112:52 PM
Advanced materials actuators encompass such a large set of possibilities, beyond the purely organic chemistry electromechanical polymers there could be synthetic biology designs of engineered biologic muscle actuators powered by nutrient fluids but electrically controlled.

Ali Shtarbanov12:52 PM
@CocaKolev I am not sure if I am answering your question fully, but McKibben muscles are one example. They can be made to contract or expand when pressurized. But maybe you were asked something else.

CocaKolev12:54 PM
Yea I've explored the idea of a McKibben muscle, I think that's what the biomimetic arm posted above uses actually! Wasn't sure if there were other projects similar to it that