18 months since the toolkit’s release, soft robotics is flying

10 Mar 2016

While robots often give off the aura of hard power, many are soft souls who just need some love

It’s been 18 months since engineers from Trinity and Harvard created the Soft Robotics Toolkit. Since then, it has all kicked off.

Pioneered in Ireland by the likes of Dr Dónal Holland, with a plethora of departments in Harvard University in the US involved, the Soft Robotics Toolkit has gone on to foster significant interest in an area exploding into the mainstream.

More than 76,000 people have engaged with the service since it was created, represented across 150 different countries, with the toolkit identified as having made one of the most significant contributions to the development of the nascent industry to date.

While robotics engineering used to focus much more attention on creating the rigid, hard-bodied prototypes like Bender from Futurama, for example, lately there has been a push towards soft, malleable structures that take their inspiration from nature.

10 such examples can be seen here.

According to Holland, the reason behind the surge in interest in the whole area is increasing democratisation of the hardware necessary to build soft robotics.


As a visiting lecturer in engineering sciences at Harvard University in the US, and a lecturer in biomechanics at the UCD School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, Holland has devoted much of his work to the world of soft robotics, which, he says, is led by the maker revolution.

“This increase of interest in soft robotics has largely happened among research students and makers,” he told us recently. “I believe this is largely due to increasing levels of access to rapid prototyping equipment e.g. laser cutters, 3D printers and low-cost computer numerical control (CNC) mills.”

You can definitely add the toolkit to those industrial advantages, though, with the competitions it supports going some way to spreading the soft robotics word.

The ultimate goal of the latest student competition, for example, is to encourage others to find innovative applications for soft robotics technology and to continue expanding interest in this relatively new field.

Soft Wheel Robot, developed by a team at Cornell University, won the design category of the 2015 Soft Robotics Competition.

Growing by the year

“Last year, we were really impressed with the variety and quality of entries,” Holland said. “The participants came up with fantastic ideas that we never would have thought of, and we hope that this year we will receive even more submissions.”

The inaugural contest, which drew 87 initial entries from around the world, has been expanded to include separate categories for academic researchers, college students, and high school students. Winning projects will also be featured on the Soft Robotics Toolkit website.

“Before the spread of the low-cost prototyping equipment,” Holland said, “making custom moulds in a repeatable way – not by hand – was prohibitively expensive. Now it is much easier and cheaper.”

Main image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic