In fields such as soft and compliant robotics, pneumatic actuation and inflatable structures have become quite commonplace. In fact, much of the work done at Super-Releaser involves such elements (http://superreleaser.com/project-profiles/). However, researchers in the Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab have created a novel method of creating such structures, by using computer simulation and CNC technology to prototype origami-inspired inflatables.
In their research paper, scientists Jifei Ou, Felix Heibeck, Jannik Peters, and Hiroshi Ishii from the MIT Media Lab; Nikolaos Vlavianos and Chin-Yi Cheng from the MIT School of Architecture; and Mélina Skouras from MIT CSAIL outline a workflow for developing folding inflatables fit for human and environmental interaction, dubbed “aeroMorph”. In the paper, they showcase methods for design, simulation, fabrication, and actuation with aeroMorph inflatables. The team set out to create inflatables that were like origami, in that they fold up into a new shape. To accomplish this, they devised a system of simple elbow joint-like geometries that can be heat sealed into sheet materials. These geometries are diamond-shaped patterns that force the material to bend in a direction designated by how it was sealed. By building with these specific patterns, the researchers were able to create a diverse amount of inflatables that take on a variety of forms.
The paper breaks down multiple aspects of making aeroMorph structures that change the outcome of the inflatable. The first of these aspects is material: Anything from thin plastic, to fabric, to even paper can be sealed and patterned to make inflatable structures. Another aspect is fabrication method: For most of the research, the team used a custom-made 3-axis CNC machine that had been fitted with a heat sealing tool. This allowed a high degree of automation in the making of aeroMorph inflatables. Despite this, both stamp-sealing and sealing by hand can be used to create the same structures, given the same pattern. The third aspect is the transformation type, or just the motion that the fabricated inflatable will perform: This ranges from the aforementioned folding, to twisting, to texture change. These behaviors allow a vast range of motion and action.
A prominent portion of the team's research was dedicated towards the development of an organized design and simulation tool for inflatable patterns, which allows for parametric design of aeroMorph objects. It allows the user to input the basic outline of a shape, select where it should bend/fold, and change values such as the bending angle and inflation amount, which all can be easily manipulated. After that, with the click of a button, the pattern can be virtually inflated in order to digitally simulate its behavior. This can be done to a very high degree of accuracy.
The paper also discusses a variety of potential applications and use cases for this technology, including inflatable shape-changing packaging for delicate objects, haptic gloves that communicate navigation information to the wearer, and inflatable analog buttons that respond based on how they are pressed. However, there is still some work to be done on this technology, as there remain fundamental issues regarding the physics of the simulation, as well as a need for more refined control over the direction of bending.
Here at Super-Releaser, we are quite impressed of the simulation work the researchers accomplished. There is a large gap in the modeling of inflatable structures (and soft structures in general) that is slowly being covered through research such as this. Overall, we think that heat sealed inflatables are an interesting medium for soft robots, and find the researchers’ investigation into its use in a design and human interaction environment extremely important for the growth of the field.
By Aidan Leitch