FlowIO Platform for Soft Robotics and Programmable Materials

Ali Shtarbanov, Hyejun Youn

FlowIO is the first fully-integrated and truly general-purpose, miniature pneumatics development platform for control, actuation, and sensing of soft robots and programmable materials. FlowIO was designed to strip barriers to entry into the growing field of soft programmable materials and enable researchers, artists, students, and makers to be able to rapidly prototype and effortlessly bring to life their soft robotics projects. Designed with wearability and reconfigurability in mind, FlowIO comes with a set of magnetically connected modules and accessories to satisfy diverse pressure, flow rate, and sensing needs, and to make it suitable for both wearable and desktop applications. To make FlowIO suitable for broad and diverse audiences, we developed a web-GUI that runs in Google Chrome, compatible with all major mobile and desktop operating systems, enabling a user to wirelessly control FlowIO from any Bluetooth-capable device. Additionally, FlowIO is fully Arduino-compatible and has multiple APIs for both Arduino and JavaScript. Additional support for Python, Unity, and Scratch is also planned.

FlowIO was designed using a first-principles approach and was based on my familiarity with the challenges and unmet needs in the HCI, soft robotics, and maker communities, as well as the needs of my own future projects.  FlowIO is a miniature, modular, fully-integrated development platform with 5 pneumatic I/O ports for driving soft robots and other pneumatically-actuated devices.  It is a general-purpose toolkit with modular hardware and full-stack software designed for the needs of researchers, makers, students, designers, and artists working on projects involving pneumatics. FlowIO consists of hardware, software, and community aspect. The hardware modules enable a wide variety of pneumatic applications with pressure ranges from -26 psi to +30 psi and variable flow-rates up to 3.2 L/min. A complete software stack with multiple layers of abstraction includes libraries, firmware, APIs for Arduino and JavaScript, and a web-GUI accessible via the Google Chrome web browser from any device and operating system that supports Google Chrome.

Modularity and reconfigurability are core characteristics of FlowIO. Integrated modules with multiple pneumatic configurations enable a user to configure and reconfigure a FlowIO system within seconds and on-the-fly — to satisfy their project needs for pressure, flow rate, and size — just by swapping magnetically-connected modules. A complete FlowIO device consists of a main module and a pump module connected to each other. Expansion modules and accessories provide additional capabilities for broader range of application. Presently, three kinds of pump modules are available to choose from.  The figure above shows the full list of modules and accessories currently in existence. 

The most important characteristic of FlowIO, however, is the software behind it, which is what makes FlowIO a true platform technology suitable for nearly everyone.  One can control FlowIO in a variety of ways including (1) via a web-GUI that does not require any downloads or installations thanks to web-Bluetooth in Google Chrome, (2) via a JavaScript API over Bluetooth Low Energy, (3) via direct serial commands sent over USB, and (4) via Arduino-compatible APIs by writing custom firmware. The GUI-based control is supported on any Bluetooth-enable device and on any operating system that can run Google Chrome. Other means of controlling FlowIO are also being developed and scheduled for future release, including via Python, Unity, and Scratch.

FlowIO was designed to be suitable for users from all technical backgrounds, to enable them to  rapidly prototype soft robotic projects while focusing on the applications and novel user experiences they wish to create, without having to spend time developing circuit boards, writing software, or learning fluid mechanics. One user in academia reported that FlowIO saved them more than 3 months of time and development effort to bring their research project to life. Other users have been able to complete within days projects that normally take well over a month.  Over a dozen people have used FlowIO, from PhD researchers to high-school students and makers. FlowIO was also used as a teaching tool in a graduate digital fabrication course at MIT. FlowIO has enabled people to develop projects in various categories including interactivity, artistic expression, locomotion, telepresence, haptic feedback, assistive technologies, and more. The various projects made by users are listed on the FlowIO website, 

My goal is to lead FlowIO as a continuously evolving, community-driven project and engage the community in the development process, by enabling others to contribute with suggestions, new modules, software, and accessories.  I am currently building an online-community platform at, where the FlowIO documentation and web-GUI are located, and where people will also be able to post their own soft robotics projects, ideas, suggestions, designs for new modules, and tools for soft programmable materials. The goal is to also allow users to gain visibility for their work and then inspire more makers, artists, and students to unleash their creativity in soft robotics and programmable materials. 

Key Contributors

  • Ali Shtarbanov
  • Hyejun Youn
  • Ozgun Afsar
  • Joseph Paradiso