FlowIO Platform

Ali Shtarbanov, Ozgun Afsar, Hye Jun Youn, and Joseph Paradiso
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge, MA

Winner of $25,000

"This project originated out of personal necessity and then grew organically."

FlowIO is a fully integrated, miniature pneumatic development platform for actuation, sensing, and control of soft robotics and programmable materials. The platform was developed at MIT and deployed globally to democratize programmable matter; to make prototyping, innovation, and research with soft robotics incredibly quick and easy; and to enable researchers, designers, and makers of all backgrounds to unleash their creativity and bring their ideas to life. In this interview, Ali Shtarbanov, Research Assistant at MIT Media Lab, discusses the impact and future potential of this innovation.

Tech Briefs: How did the idea of FlowIO Platform originate?

Ali Shtarbanov: This project originated out of personal necessity and then grew organically. Around 2019, I was collaborating on a few project ideas related to soft robotics which required a small, wearable, battery-powered, and fully integrated pneumatic control system. After developing an application-specific version, it became apparent that similar hardware and software would be also needed for other projects I was exploring. So, I started thinking about creating a single general-purpose solution that would satisfy the needs of all the projects as well as reduce the complexity and time it takes to develop soft robotic projects from months to weeks. Shortly after completing the first prototype of FlowIO, when people around me started inquiring about using it in their own projects and even requesting to buy, it became apparent that I could have a far more meaningful impact in the world if I focus my attention on creating a general-purpose miniature development platform that would enable hundreds of people to rapidly transform ideas into reality.

Tech Briefs: What makes prototyping using the platform easy?

Shtarbanov: The world of soft robotics prototyping and research today is a lot like the world of electronics prototyping two decades ago before platforms like Arduino or Raspberry Pi existed. For instance, an electronics project that two decades ago may have required advanced engineering expertise and a week of work in a lab. Today, however, that same project could be done in a weekend by a middle-school student at home with minimum training. Similarly, those prototyping or doing research in soft robotics typically spend months in developing control hardware, driving electronics, software algorithms, and troubleshooting. The FlowIO Platform eliminates most of those complexities and allows to focus on the actual applications they are trying to create without having to deal with the hardware and software complexities required to make those projects a reality.

Tech Briefs: What are some of the challenges you faced in design and development?

Shtarbanov: The main design challenge was making FlowIO miniaturized, highly energy-efficient, and fully integrated. Other systems of this kind are 5-10 times larger, aren’t battery-powered, and require external pressure sources. The second major design challenge was making the platform suitable for many different applications requiring different kinds of hardware. This was solved by adopting a modular design approach and making the platform reconfigurable for different applications simply by swapping different magnetically connected modules.

Tech Briefs: What were some of the lessons you learned?

Shtarbanov: Previously, I used to think that great platform technologies (e.g., Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Mindstorms) were by themselves responsible for making esoteric fields more accessible to people and enabling faster prototyping. But now I have realized that to democratize a field, you need to have not only a great enabling platform technology but also a whole ecosystem around that platform technology. SoftRobotics.IO is this ecosystem around FlowIO. Even if you have the most amazing technology platform, it will not be adopted widely unless there is also an entire ecosystem around it.

Tech Briefs: How close are you to commercializing the FlowIO Platform, and what are its future applications?

Shtarbanov: For an enabling platform technology to reach wide adoption, it requires much more than great hardware, software, and user experience; it requires that a complete ecosystem exists alongside the platform, as I discussed in the question about lessons learned. Thus, for the past year and a half, we have been developing not only FlowIO but also a complete ecosystem around the platform. This ecosystem, which we call SoftRobotics.IO, consists of (a) innovative research and art projects made with FlowIO by different users, (b) a community website for FlowIO with forums and blogs where people can ask questions and share their work, (c) a growing user base of early adopters at more than two dozen of the world’s leading institutions like MIT, Stanford, and Harvard, and (d) a novel business model that makes FlowIO Platform available to early adopters with great project ideas. Hundreds of project proposals have been submitted by people around the world interested in obtaining and using FlowIO, of which we were able to accept around 10 percent. The range of applications we have seen just in the proposals received to date is absolutely incredible. People want to use FlowIO for art, education, soft robotics, underwater vehicles, musical instruments, olfactory feedback, medical devices, surgical robots, haptic feedback, interactive displays, fashion, and numerous other types of applications. A general-purpose development platform unleashes the creativity of people, who then come up with applications for it that even you as the creator could not imagine.

Tech Briefs: How do you feel about winning the 2022 CTF Grand Prize?

Shtarbanov: I feel honored and excited to be the winner of the Create the Future Grand Prize award. It serves as validation that the journey I have been on for many years — of creating a future where prototyping and innovation in emerging fields is more rapid, seamless, and accessible to everyone — is a journey worth pursuing. I also feel humbled, because I owe this success to countless people, including those who enabled me to undertake this journey, those who came with me, those whom I’ve met at different points along the way, those who provided me with strength and courage during the most dangerous parts of the journey, those who warned me of dangers to avoid that were hidden in the shadows, those who showed me pathways that led to new and uncharted territories, those who I’ve met at each of my stops who greeted me as well as everyone else who made this still-ongoing journey worthwhile.

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This article first appeared in the November, 2022 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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