This article describes the development of the Soft Robotics Toolkit, a set of open access resources to support the design, fabrication, modeling, characterization, and control of soft robotic devices. The ultimate aim of the toolkit is to support researchers in building upon each other's work, and thereby advance the field of soft robotics. An additional aim is to support educators and encourage students to pursue careers in engineering and science by making the resources as accessible as possible. The toolkit was developed and refined through a series of pilot studies and user tests. Specifically, the resources were used by students in a project-based medical device design course; volunteers from a variety of backgrounds tested the toolkit and provided feedback, and soft robotics researchers used the collection of resources and contributed to its development. Throughout all user studies, qualitative data were collected and used to guide improvements to the toolkit. This process of testing and refinement has resulted in a website containing design documentation describing general hardware control platforms and specific soft robotic component designs. The online documentation includes downloadable computer-aided design (CAD) files, detailed multimedia protocols for the fabrication of soft devices, tutorials and scripts for modeling and analyzing soft actuators and sensors, and source code for controlling soft devices. Successive iterations of qualitative data gathering and redesign have confirmed that the toolkit documentation is sufficiently detailed to be useful for researchers from a wide range of backgrounds. To date, the focus of the toolkit has primarily been fluid-actuated robotic systems, but the plan is to expand it to support a wider range of soft robotic-enabling technologies. The toolkit is intended as a community resource, and all researchers working in this field are invited to guide its future development by providing feedback and contributing new content.
Wearable robots based on soft materials will augment mobility and performance of the host without restricting natural kinematics. Such wearable robots will need soft sensors to monitor the movement of the wearer and robot outside the lab. Until now wearable soft sensors have not demonstrated significant mechanical robustness nor been systematically characterized for human motion studies of walking and running. Here, we present the design and systematic characterization of a soft sensing suit for monitoring hip, knee, and ankle sagittal plane joint angles. We used hyper-elastic strain sensors based on microchannels of liquid metal embedded within elastomer, but refined their design with the use of discretized stiffness gradients to improve mechanical durability. We found that these robust sensors could stretch up to 396% of their original lengths, would restrict the wearer by less than 0.17% of any given joint’s torque, had gauge factor sensitivities of greater than 2.2, and exhibited less than 2% change in electromechanical specifications through 1500 cycles of loading–unloading. We also evaluated the accuracy and variability of the soft sensing suit by comparing it with joint angle data obtained through optical motion capture. The sensing suit had root mean square (RMS) errors of less than 5° for a walking speed of 0.89 m/s and reached a maximum RMS error of 15° for a running speed of 2.7 m/s. Despite the deviation of absolute measure, the relative repeatability of the sensing suit’s joint angle measurements were statistically equivalent to that of optical motion capture at all speeds. We anticipate that wearable soft sensing will also have applications beyond wearable robotics, such as in medical diagnostics and in human–computer interaction.
A class of soft actuated materials that can achieve lifelike motion is presented. By embedding pneumatic actuators in a soft material inspired by a biological muscle fibril architecture, and developing a simple finite element simulation of the same, tunable biomimetic motion can be achieved with fully soft structures, exemplified here by an active left ventricle simulator.
In this paper we have rapidly prototyped customized, highly-sensitive, mm-scale multi-axis force sensors for medical applications. Using a composite laminate batch fabrication process with biocompatible constituent materials, we have fabricated a fully-integrated, 10×10 mm three-axis force sensor with up to 5 V/N sensitivity and RMS noise on the order of ~1.6 mN, operational over a range of -500 to 500 mN in the x- and y-axes, and -2.5 to 2.5 N in the z-axis. Custom foil-based strain sensors were fabricated in parallel with the mechanical structure, obviating the need for post-manufacturing alignment and assembly. The sensor and its custom-fabricated signal conditioning circuitry fit within a 1×1×2 cm volume to realize a fully-integrated force transduction platform with potential haptics and control applications in minimally-invasive surgical tools. The form factor, biocompatibility, and cost of the sensor and signal conditioning makes this method ideal for rapid-prototyping low-cost, mm-scale distal force sensors. Sensor performance is validated in a simulated tissue palpation task using a robotic master-slave platform.
Lower-limb wearable robots have been proposed as a means to augment or assist the wearer's natural performance, in particular, in the military and medical field. Previous research studies on human-robot interaction and biomechanics have largely been performed with rigid exoskeletons that add significant inertia to the lower extremities and provide constraints to the wearer's natural kinematics in both actuated and non-actuated degrees of freedom. Actuated lightweight soft exosuits minimize these effects and provide a unique opportunity to study human-robot interaction in wearable systems without affecting the subjects underlying natural dynamics. In this paper, we present the design and control of a reconfigurable multi-joint actuation platform that can provide biologically realistic torques to ankle, knee, and hip joints through lower extremity soft exosuits. Two different soft exosuits have been designed to deliver assistive forces through Bowden cable transmission to the ankle and hip joints. Through human subject experiments, it is demonstrated that with a real-time admittance controller, accurate force profile tracking can be achieved during walking. The average energy delivered to the test subject was calculated while walking at 1.25 m/s and actuated with 15% of the total torque required by the biological joints. The results show that the ankle joint received an average of 3.02J during plantar flexion and that the hip joint received 1.67J during flexion each gait cycle. The efficiency of the described suit and controller in transferring energy to the human biological joints is 70% for the ankle and 48% for the hip.
Magnetic localization systems based on passive permanent magnets (PM) are of great interest due to their ability to provide non-contact sensing and without any power requirement for the PM. Medical procedures such as ventriculostomy can benefit greatly from real-time feedback of the inserted catheter tip. While the effects of the number of sensors on the localization accuracy in such systems has been reported, the spatial design of the sensor layout has been largely overlooked. Here in this paper, a framework for determining an optimal sensor assembly for enhanced localization performance is presented and investigated through numerical simulations and direct experiments. Two approaches are presented: one based on structured grid configuration and the other derived using Genetic Algorithms. Simulation results verified by experiments strongly suggest that the layout of the sensors not only has an effect on the localization accuracy, but also has an effect far more pronounced than improvements brought by increasing the number of sensors.
Finger therapy exercises, which include table-top, proximal-interphalangeal blocking, straight-fist, distal-interphalangeal blocking, hook-fist and fist exercises, are important for maintaining hand mobility and preventing development of tendon adhesions in post-operative hand-injury patients. Continuous passive motion devices act as an adjunct to the therapist in performing therapy exercises on patients, however current devices are unable to recreate these exercises well. The current study aimed to design and evaluate a finger exercise device that reproduces the therapy exercises, by adopting a cable-actuated flexion and spring-return extension mechanism. The device comprises of phalanx interface attachments, connected by palmar-side cables to spooling actuators and linked by dorsal-side extension springs to provide passive return. Two designs were tested, whereby the springs had similar (Design 1) or different stiffnesses (Design 2). The device was donned onto a model hand and actuated into the desired therapy postures. Our findings indicated that Design 1 is able to recreate table-top, straight-fist and fist exercises, while Design 2 is capable of further replicating distal-interphalangeal blocking, proximal-interphalangeal blocking and hook-fist exercises. Considering that these therapy exercises have not yet been well-replicated in current devices, developing a new device that reproduces the exercises will be beneficial for post-operative rehabilitation of patients.
Soft robots actuated by inflation of a pneumatic network (a “pneu-net”) of small channels in elastomeric materials are appealing for producing sophisticated motions with simple controls. Although current designs of pneu-nets achieve motion with large amplitudes, they do so relatively slowly (over seconds). This paper describes a new design for pneu-nets that reduces the amount of gas needed for inflation of the pneu-net, and thus increases its speed of actuation. A simple actuator can bend from a linear to a quasi-circular shape in 50 ms when pressurized at ΔP = 345 kPa. At high rates of pressurization, the path along which the actuator bends depends on this rate. When inflated fully, the chambers of this new design experience only one-tenth the change in volume of that required for the previous design. This small change in volume requires comparably low levels of strain in the material at maximum amplitudes of actuation, and commensurately low rates of fatigue and failure. This actuator can operate over a million cycles without significant degradation of performance. This design for soft robotic actuators combines high rates of actuation with high reliability of the actuator, and opens new areas of application for them.
J. Gafford, S. B. Kesner, R. J. Wood, and C. J. Walsh, “Microsurgical devices by Pop-up Book MEMS,” in Proceedings of the ASME 2013 International Design Engineering Technical Conferences & Computers and Information in Engineering Conference IDETC/CIE 2013, Portland, Oregon, USA, 2013.PDF
A handheld, portable cranial drilling tool for safely creating holes in the skull without damaging brain tissue is presented. Such a device is essential for neurosurgeons and mid-level practitioners treating patients with traumatic brain injury. A typical procedure creates a small hole for inserting sensors to monitor intra-cranial pressure measurements and/or removing excess fluid. Drilling holes in emergency settings with existing tools is difficult and dangerous due to the risk of a drill bit unintentionally plunging into brain tissue. Cranial perforators, which counter-bore holes and automatically stop upon skull penetration, do exist but are limited to large diameter hole size and an operating room environment. The tool presented here is compatible with a large range of bit diameters and provides safe, reliable access. This is accomplished through a dynamic bi-stable linkage that supports drilling when force is applied against the skull but retracts upon penetration when the reaction force is diminished. Retraction is achieved when centrifugal forces from rotating masses overpower the axial forces, thus changing the state of the bi-stable mechanism. Initial testing on ex-vivo animal structures has demonstrated that the device can withdraw the drill bit in sufficient time to eliminate the risk of soft tissue damage. Ease of use and portability of the device will enable its use in unregulated environments such as hospital emergency rooms and emergency disaster relief areas.
In this paper, we present the design and evaluation of a novel soft cable-driven exosuit that can apply forces to the body to assist walking. Unlike traditional exoskeletons which contain rigid framing elements, the soft exosuit is worn like clothing, yet can generate moments at the ankle and hip with magnitudes of 18% and 30% of those naturally generated by the body during walking, respectively. Our design uses geared motors to pull on Bowden cables connected to the suit near the ankle. The suit has the advantages over a traditional exoskeleton in that the wearer's joints are unconstrained by external rigid structures, and the worn part of the suit is extremely light, which minimizes the suit's unintentional interference with the body's natural biomechanics. However, a soft suit presents challenges related to actuation force transfer and control, since the body is compliant and cannot support large pressures comfortably. We discuss the design of the suit and actuation system, including principles by which soft suits can transfer force to the body effectively and the biological inspiration for the design. For a soft exosuit, an important design parameter is the combined effective stiffness of the suit and its interface to the wearer. We characterize the exosuit's effective stiffness, and present preliminary results from it generating assistive torques to a subject during walking. We envision such an exosuit having broad applicability for assisting healthy individuals as well as those with muscle weakness.
The small scale of minimally-invasive surgery (MIS) presents significant challenges to developing robust, smart, and dexterous tools for manipulating millimeter and sub-millimeter anatomical structures (vessels, nerves) and surgical equipment (sutures, staples). Robotic MIS systems offer the potential to transform this medical field by enabling precise repair of these miniature tissue structures through the use of teleoperation and haptic feedback. However, this effort is currently limited by the inability to make robust and accurate MIS end effectors with integrated force and contact sensing. In this paper, we demonstrate the use of the novel Pop-Up Book MEMS manufacturing method to fabricate the mechanical and sensing elements of an instrumented MIS grasper. A custom thin-foil strain gage was manufactured in parallel with the mechanical components of the grasper to realize a fully-integrated electromechanical system in a single manufacturing step, removing the need for manual assembly, bonding and alignment. In preliminary experiments, the integrated grasper is capable of resolving forces as low as 30 mN, with a sensitivity of approximately 408 mV/N. This level of performance will enable robotic surgical systems that can handle delicate tissue structures and perform dexterous procedures through the use of haptic feedback guidance.
Established design and fabrication guidelines exist for achieving a variety of motions with soft actuators such as bending, contraction, extension, and twisting. These guidelines typically involve multi-step molding of composite materials (elastomers, paper, fiber, etc.) along with specially designed geometry. In this paper we present the design and fabrication of a robust, fiber-reinforced soft bending actuator where its bend radius and bending axis can be mechanically-programed with a flexible, selectively-placed conformal covering that acts to mechanically constrain motion. Several soft actuators were fabricated and their displacement and force capabilities were measured experimentally and compared to demonstrate the utility of this approach. Finally, a prototype two-digit end-effector was designed and programmed with the conformal covering to shape match a rectangular object. We demonstrated improved gripping force compared to a pure bending actuator. We envision this approach enabling rapid customization of soft actuator function for grasping applications where the geometry of the task is known a priori.