Mesmerizing plush toy robots made on a knitting machine

With embedded tendons, these stuffed toys out of CMU are pointing the way to new soft robots.

Carnegie Mellon has the coolest lab names. These plush toys that are actually robots made on knitting machines, for examples, came out of CMU's Morphing Matter Lab and Dev Lab in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

The soft robots emerge from industrial knitting machines, the kind used to create scarves at volume, in their desired shapes and with tendons already embedded. Just add stuffing motors and you've got yourself an adorable robot.

"Soft robotics is a growing field," says Lea Albaugh, a Ph.D. student who led the research effort. "The idea is to build robots from materials that are inherently safe for people to be near, so it would be very hard to hurt someone. Actuated soft components would be cheap to produce on commercial knitting machines."

Albaugh's research builds on previous CMU work to automate commercial knitting. By using the knitting machines to embed tendons during the construction of soft robots, the researchers have identified a way to precisely and efficiently mass produce robots.

The tendons can be embedded horizontally, vertically, and diagonally in the knitted form, making a variety of motion effects possible, as illustrated in the embedded video. Various tendon materials can be used, including polyester-wrapped quilting thread, silk yarn, and nylon. 

"We have so many soft objects in our lives and many of them could be made interactive with this technology," Albaugh says. "A garment could be part of your personal information system. Your sweater, for example, might tap you on your shoulder to get your attention. The fabric of a chair might serve as a haptic interface. Backpacks might open themselves."