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FlowIO Platform

Miniature, modular pneumatics toolkit for control & sensing of Soft Robots and Programmable Materials, developed at MIT Media Lab

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FlowIO is a modular pneumatics development platform that makes prototyping in soft robotics and programmable materials incredibly easy! FlowIO is to soft robotics what Arduino is to electronics, enabling researchers, artists, and makers to unleash their creativity! Five pneumatic ports and multiple fully-integrated modules to satisfy various pressure, flow, and size requirements make FlowIO suitable for wearable and non-wearable applications. FlowIO includes a software stack with APIs, Bluetooth capabilities, and web-GUI supported on all major mobile and desktop operating systems. The system is fully compatible with Arduino, JavaScript, and Google Chrome, making FlowIO suitable for makers from any technical background. Over a dozen people have used the FlowIO platform, ranging from high-school and college students to graduate students and researchers. FlowIO is offered under a unique model where it is funded by donations and given freely to people who would do amazing projects with it!

All project details, including complete instructional series for how to replicate and make FlowIO are provided at https://www.softrobotics.io/flowio

You can also read the research paper https://doi.org/10.1145/3411763.3451513, reproduced below as well.

Projects powered by FlowIO: https://www.softrobotics.io/projects

Intro to Soft Robotics workshop with tips, tricks, and resources:  https://www.softrobotics.io/workshop-intro

List of labs doing work with soft programmable materials: https://www.softrobotics.io/labs

List of relevant review papers in the field:  https://www.softrobotics.io/reviews

*** If you are interested in helping with this vision and the broader mission, lets work together! ***

Mission: I believe that access to creative opportunities should be a human right and not a privilege reserved for only those who have the means to afford the tools, resources, and education needed for technological innovation. Some of the most transformative inventions and breakthroughs the world needs may never materialize because the people who may one day make those breakthroughs,  may never get the opportunity to explore a path that would lead them towards those transformative ideas. The world today more than ever ideas and innovation to solve some of the greatest challenges we've ever faced on a global scale. And while talent is everywhere, opportunity is not

My overarching mission is to make technological creativity, innovation, and exploration easier and more accessible to people from all backgrounds through the development of novel enabling platform technologies that focus on emerging fields. I developed FlowIO to enable rapid prototyping opportunities in soft robotics and programmable materials, and to make these fields more accessible to researchers, engineers, makers, artists, and students. Learn more about FlowIO by watching the video above and by visiting the About page. 


Ali Shtarbanov. 2021. FlowIO Development Platform – the Pneumatic “Raspberry Pi” for Soft Robotics. In CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’21 Extended Abstracts), May 08–13, 2021, Yokohama, Japan. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 6 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3411763.3451513

Figure 1: (a) The FlowIO platform with all modules.  (b, c, d) Three application scenarios utilizing the small, medium, and large pump modules for (b) wearable, (c) desktop, and (d) hybrid wearable & desktop applications, respectively.

Motivation:

Platform technologies such as Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Lego Mindstorms, and Scratch have liberated entire fields by diminishing barriers to entry. Arduino transformed electronics, Raspberry Pi – portable computing, Lego Mindstorms – robotics, and Scratch – programming. These and similar platforms have not only made esoteric fields more accessible for artists, designers, and makers, but they have also enabled researchers and engineers to prototype more rapidly. For instance, a prototype that two decades ago may have required a small team of engineers and a week of work in a lab setting with expensive equipment to build, today could be done in a weekend, by a high-school student, in their living room! This transformation, I believe, is thanks to: (1) the availability of platforms and tools that are easy to learn and use; (2) the emergence of modules from companies like Adafruit, designed specifically for popular platforms; and (3) a growing community that is continuously contributing software, projects, ideas, tutorials, and other content – inspiring even more people to be part of that community as both users and contributors.

Today, prototyping in soft robotics and programmable materials has high barriers to entry and is as inaccessible to most people as electronics prototyping was two decades ago. This problem exists because the three aforementioned factors that transformed electronics prototyping...

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  • 1 × There are more than 100 unique components! All are listed at: https://www.softrobotics.io/parts
  • 1 × The BOM is also provided as one of the included files above.

  • Nov.4.Updates

    Ali Shtarbanov11/04/2021 at 17:00 0 comments

    The mobile versions of the tutorial pages were in really bad shape, and have now been fixed to read properly on a mobile device. If you find any other pages on the website whose mobile version needs improvement, let me know to take care of it.

    I have now started developing another module for the FlowIO platform that would replace the AnalogIn16 module. This new design would also incorporate a Wheatstone bridge and a differential amplifier so that it is suitable even for measuring very small changes in resistance - which are typical for strain gauges.

    I have now added a ChangeLog page to the website, where I will be posting the latest updates on the project. I will usually be updating this page at the end of each month to post all the updates that have happened during the past month. https://www.softrobotics.io/changelog

  • FlowIO wins iF DESIGN TALENT AWARD

    Ali Shtarbanov10/30/2021 at 21:43 0 comments
  • Project OmniFiber

    Ali Shtarbanov10/28/2021 at 18:17 0 comments

    If you haven't seen it yet, take a look at this MIT News article just published this month (+ video) of project OmniFiber, in which we use FlowIO for the control system. 

    https://news.mit.edu/2021/fibers-breath-regulating-1015

  • New CAD Files Available

    Ali Shtarbanov10/03/2021 at 03:25 0 comments

    The latest CAD files for FlowIO have now been released and are available for download in the open-source 3MF file format! You can download the new files in chapter 2 of https://www.softrobotics.io/flowio

    Here is one of the numerous articles about why 3MF is so great https://blog.prusaprinters.org/3mf-file-format-and-why-its-great_30986/

    This latest update of the enclosure now features a notch that securely connects the main module to any of the pump modules. Previously, the only mechanical connection between modules was the magnetic connector and the tubes that run on the sides. And this was not not enough, especially not in the case of the large pump module. But with this change, we now have a very strong connection between modules that would hold them together no matter how you turn and twist the FlowIO device. 

    This will be the last update to the CAD files, and there are no further updates intended on this front for the foreseeable future.

  • New Replication Tutorials Added

    Ali Shtarbanov10/01/2021 at 13:43 0 comments

    Two new chapters have been added to the Make FlowIO tutorials series. Specifically, the assembly instructions for the Small and the Large pump modules are now present as chapters 11 and 13, respectively. Find all tutorials at https://www.softrobotics.io/flowio

    Several of the preexisting chapters have been augmented and updated as well, better pictures have been added. Each tutorial now also features at the top a full list of the parts and supplies needed to complete the steps within it.

  • M - Pump Module Assembly

    Ali Shtarbanov09/16/2021 at 15:17 0 comments

    The assembly instructions for the Medium Pump module have now been updated (https://www.softrobotics.io/flowio chapter 11) based on the latest enclosure designs. Notice that the battery is now placed underneath the pumps as opposed to behind them. Additionally, there is no longer a need to buy the Talon Ultra-Flex wire because I found an interesting way to make things work using the valve wires that we normally discard. Thus, it's a win-win situation because we can now save a couple of dollars per device while also reducing waste!

  • New Enclosures Available

    Ali Shtarbanov09/15/2021 at 12:46 0 comments

    The redesigning of the enclosures is now complete and the new STL files are available for download on the project website https://www.softrobotics.io/flowio under chapter 2. The latest enclosures have been greatly improved on their visual aesthetics and functional characteristics compared to the previous version. 

    • The base for each module was completely redesigned to make the attachment more secure. 
    • The need for supports during 3D printing has been greatly reduced, making printing much easier and even saving some material that would normally go towards support structures. This also reduces the print time slightly.
    • The bottom edges are now also filleted just like the top edges, which was previously not possible with the earlier design. This makes the device much more comfortable to use when being worn.
    • The new enclosures are 0.75mm taller. 
    • The battery for the medium pump module now goes below the pumps rather than behind them. This enables us to use the same kind of battery as the one used in the main module, thus reducing the number of unique parts. As a result, the medium pump module is now almost 7mm smaller in length, but now the entire device is 0.75mm taller - which was a great trade-off.
    • The added height of FlowIO now allows for a 3D printed separator to be added in between the battery and the valves in the main module, which greatly increases the safety of the device by preventing heat from the valves to be directly absorbed by the battery. 
    • Because of the dimensional changes, the new enclosures are not compatible with the old ones, so if you have a FlowIO device already and you want to upgrade to the latest version, you should 3D print all the parts. 

  • Arduino API updated

    Ali Shtarbanov09/13/2021 at 14:44 0 comments

    Updated the Arduino API documentation to reflect the recently-developed power management APIs for FlowIO https://www.softrobotics.io/arduino-api

  • Enclosure Design Improvements

    Ali Shtarbanov09/04/2021 at 05:56 0 comments

    During the past week, the enclosure design was greatly improved. The snap-fit joints have been completely reengineered and now the base covers for each module are held much more securely and firmly. There is almost no visible gaps now between the parts. And finally, with this new design, the bottom of the enclosure could now be filleted just like the top, making the device more pleasant to look at and more comfortable to wear. 

    Some further improvements are now also being made to the enclosure design, and new STL files will be posted on the softrobotics.io website by the end of next week when everything is completed.

  • August 2021 Updates

    Ali Shtarbanov08/20/2021 at 22:19 0 comments

    A huge number of updates have occurred just in the past 1.5 months: 

    • Increased charging rate and reduced charging time from 2.5 hours to 1.5 hours through a hardware upgrade.
    • Reduced power consumption by over 50% through an advanced power management algorithm with feedback control loops, by exploiting the fact that valves need far less current to stay open than to open in the first place. Existing users of FlowIO can get the advantage of this just by upgrading their device firmware to the latest version.
    • The new firmware also fixes the issue where the device would become hot after continuous operation. 
    • Contacted multiple new manufacturers and suppliers in an effort to reduce the cost of parts used in FlowIO, and increase the speed of production. Some cost reduction has been achieved.
    • Designed 3 completely new expansion modules for FlowIO, which are now being made and will be revealed later this year! With these modules, FlowIO will become even more general-purpose!
    • Designed another version of the PCBs that are slightly smaller and with higher current-carrying capacity, so that it is now possible to use even other kinds of valves that may be more power-hungry. (Hint: HydroIO).
    • Found a higher-density battery with 20% higher capacity for the main module. This one had to be custom ordered directly from a manufacturer.
    • An additional pump module was developed that is slightly larger than the Small and slightly smaller than the Medium pump module. 
    • 1 Fully assembled FlowIO device and the parts for 3 additional FlowIO devices have been shipped out this month to 4 new users!
    • Numerous updates have been made to the replication tutorials and documentation sections on the softrobotics.io website.
    • A new function was added to the Arduino API for power optimization.
    • A new page on the website that gives credit to the donors and sponsors is under development. 
    • A custom-made FFC cable of exact dimensions was ordered to reduce the time and complexity of assembly. 
    • Working towards reducing the cost of the FlowIO device by working directly with part manufacturers and ordering in bulk quantities from alternative suppliers.
    • Greatly Improved the 3D printed enclosure designs with improvements to functionality, structure, and aesthetics. 

View all 10 project logs

  • 1
    The complete build series is provided at https://www.softrobotics.io/flowio

    The complete series for replicating FlowIO, with graphics and videos, is available at https://www.softrobotics.io/flowio 

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papyDoctor wrote 5 days ago point

Great tool!

Can you please add support for Godot Engine instead of Unity, that makes more sense :) .

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papyDoctor wrote 5 days ago point

d

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Kevin Ulmer wrote 5 days ago point

Could you modify this to be hydraulic for undersea applications?

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Ali Shtarbanov wrote 07/25/2021 at 23:38 point

Thank you! Building just a single one of these can be quite expensive because there are many parts inside from different suppliers and thus shipping costs quickly add up. And some parts also have minimum order quantities of 5 or 10, even when you may need just 2 of some parts. Manufacturing the circuit boards is a similar story. For this reason, it can be quite expensive to build just one of them - in the high hundreds of dollars. But if I am ordering parts for 10 of them, then the cost per unit is significantly lower, about 50% lower cost per unit - in the low hundreds. And furthermore, if I am making a device with fewer than 5 ports, that also drives the price down substantially! 

(The full list of parts with links to the suppliers order pages for them is in the Bill of Materials chapter of the making FlowIO tutorials https://www.softrobotics.io/flowio )

But it makes sense to pool resources as a group of at least 10 users at a time, and just buy the parts in bulk, and then distribute them to the group members. And that's exactly what I have been doing for the past several months, so that everyone benefits! 

Extending the aforementioned idea further, I created a new kind of hardware distribution model and philosophy that I call Creative Commons Hardware, with the goal to enable anyone in the long-term to have access to FlowIO - regardless of how much one can spend on it. I am sending FlowIO (or some of the parts for it) freely to people who can do cool things with it, and who would contribute to the further growth and evolution of this open project and the project-website. And the number of devices I can build and send depends on donations. 

Then, people can use the FlowIO device for as long as they wish, and when they are done - they give it back to me / MIT or send it to another approved requester themselves. In this new non-profit model, the device is a common-good part of the public-commons rather than a private property. As the number of devices in circulation keeps increasing and as more of them become available from existing users who are done with their projects, and as more people are starting to build FlowIO for themselves, eventually there will be plenty of FlowIO devices circulating around for people to borrow them freely when needed! I discuss this model further on the project home-page (www.softrobotics.io) and on the request page (www.softrobotics.io/getflowio)

If interested in building FlowIO yourself, just let me know, and I may be able to help you with some of the parts! 

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klotzdafotz wrote 5 days ago point

I would be interested in a complete hardware kit without 3D parts. Is it intended that you offer something like that?

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John Opsahl wrote 07/25/2021 at 22:18 point

Do you have a estimate on how much it would cost to build a main module and small pump module for a one-off prototype?

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Petar Crnjak wrote 07/25/2021 at 20:28 point

This is amazing, good job!

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