Go with the Flow

FlowIO is looking to be the Arduino of soft robotics with its easy to use modular pneumatics development platform.

Nick Bild
3 years agoRobotics
FlowIO platform (📷: Ali Shtarbanov)

As a hobbyist, it is relatively simple to get involved with electronics or embedded system development. Tools from Arduino or Raspberry Pi, for example, make it easy and inexpensive to get started, and also offer room to grow as skills advance. In the world of soft robotics, however, the barriers to entry are much higher, both in terms of skill level required to get started and expense.

Ali Shtarbanov of the MIT Media Lab is trying to do to soft robotics what Arduino and Raspberry Pi did to electronics with the FlowIO platform. FlowIO is a modular pneumatics development platform for soft robotics prototyping.

The main FlowIO module has up to five pneumatic ports, with each port capable of inflation, vacuum, release to atmospheric pressure, pressure hold, pressure sense, and flow-rate variability actions. An Adafruit Feather Sense development board with an nRF52840 system on a chip provides processing, GPIO pins, and a number of sensors (inertial measurement unit, altimeter, light sensor).

A pump module comes in three different sizes, depending on the pressure requirements of the project it supports. Each version comes with two pumps, a custom driver board, battery, and a 3D printed enclosure — only the pumps and batteries differ between versions. This module connects to the main module with a four-pin magnetic connector and a pair of silicone tubes.

The functionality of FlowIO can be extended through expansion modules, which can be attached via either GPIO or Bluetooth Low Energy. Thus far, a number of expansion modules have been created that either add a slew of new sensing capabilities to the platform, or break out the existing sensors such that they can be accessed externally more easily.

FlowIO was designed as a wearable-first platform, and towards that end, it comes with a wrist strap that allows it to be worn like a watch. Shtarbanov suggests that this will make it a useful platform for the development of assistive technologies. The tabs present on the casing allow for alternate types of attachments to be used for various applications.

The platform comes with a software stack that is fully compatible with Arduino, JavaScript, and Google Chrome. The stack includes APIs, Bluetooth capabilities, and a web-GUI, all designed to make the platform accessible to makers of all experience levels.

Sounds great, right? So what does it cost? Well, nothing. That is, it is funded by donations and then given away freely to makers that have great ideas for the tool. You can also check out the instructions to build your own.

Nick Bild
R&D, creativity, and building the next big thing you never knew you wanted are my specialties.
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