There has been a growing demand for soft robotics over the past few years, because they’re better suited than traditional rigid robots for many tasks. Gripping a delicate item, for example, is difficult for a conventional hard end effector, but trivial for a soft one. Because soft robots work by pushing air or fluid in and out of cavities, there is a need for reliable maker-friendly air pumps. That demand has been woefully under served, which is why Amitabh Shrivastava has created Programmable Air.
Shrivastava had designed Programmable Air to be both affordable and high-performing enough for soft robots. There are only a couple of possible alternatives out there: Pneuduino, which looks good but appears to be in development limbo, and Fluidic Control System, which is expensive, bulky, and hard to use. Programmable Air should perform on a level similar to Fluidic Control System, but at a fraction of the price and in a much more user-friendly manner.
That’s a tall order, but Shrivastava seems to have made a lot of progress by experimenting with a variety of components to find the best balance of performance and cost. He used the same ATmega328 used in the Arduino Nano, and affordable medical air pumps to keep the costs down. The design is composed of a primary master board that provides control, and up to three auxiliary air pump boards that do the actual work.
Each of those auxiliary boards can pump air into your soft robot, pump air out to pull vacuum, and vent to atmosphere to release pressure. Programmable Air is still solidly in the research and development phase, but Shrivastava seems to be dedicated to the project and has already made a lot of progress. Check out the GitHub page if you want to investigate using Programmable Air for your next soft robot.
UPDATE: Programmable Air will be launching soon on Crowd Supply.