So just what is the connection between seagulls and systems design innovation? The answer: Hannover Fair. To
help you make sense of this, let me start with innovation and finish with the seagull.
I've been coming to Hannover Fair - probably the world's largest
industrial technology show of its kind - nearly every year since 2004; and
while there is always a bounty of new developments and interesting products on
display, most of the time the advances on exhibit are small incremental
improvements. Such is often the case with advancing technology.
But all the advice from industry experts as we headed into the
most recent recession - that technology companies should use the slowdown in
business to invest time and money in research - seems to have been taken to
heart by a number of companies. And a good bit of it was in evidence at this
year's Hannover Fair.
Not to take anything away from the advances exhibited by other
companies but, in my estimation, the symbol of this year's innovation
breakthroughs at Hannover Fair was the Festo seagull.
Here's the deal: Festo has developed what it calls the SmartBird
- an extremely agile, robotic bird. The SmartBird can start, fly, and land on
its own. Furthermore, by copying the flight motion of the herring gull (upon
which it was modeled), the wings beat up and down and twist at specific angles
in much the same way bird wings do.
The keys to the realistic wing movement are: a lever mechanism
that, as the wings beat up and down, causes a degree of deflection to increase
from the SmartBird's torso to the wing tip; and the wing is able to twist so
that the leading edge is directed upward during the upward stroke, thereby
making the torsion created active, rather than passive, and lifting the
SmartBird into the air. Active torsion is achieved by a servo motor at the end
of the outer wing, which twists the wing via the outer rib of the wing.
The wing's position and
torsion are monitored by a two-way radio using the ZigBee protocol. Communication
to and from the bird includes information on battery charge, power consumption
and input from the pilot.
Inside the bird's torso are the battery, engine and transmission,
crank mechanism, and the control and regulation electronics. Three Hall sensors
on the motor register the wing's positions. Two electric motors and cables are
used to synchronize movement of the head and torso sections. Because the torso
bends aerodynamically, with simultaneous weight displacement, the SmartBird is
both agile and maneuverable.
While this is only a broad overview of what goes into the
SmartBird technology, one has to wonder: What did Festo get out of all this
research beyond being able to wow a technology-loving crowd? According to the
company, the benefits of what it learned from developing the SmartBird are:
transferrable knowledge about hybrid drive technology (pneumatic and electric);
and greater efficiencies in resource and energy consumption through the minimal
use of materials and lightweight construction.
On April 15, 2010, President Barack Obama gave a major speech at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, announcing that the US would send astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s. But in order to do so, NASA would first need to ramp up its capabilities through missions directed toward "a series of increasingly demanding targets," i.e. asteroids.
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