Festo, inventor of sophisticated and elegant robotic birds, as well as robot jellyfish and penguins, has done it again. The company's latest robotic achievement is a dragonfly, the BionicOpter, which can independently move each of its wings to fly in any direction.
Introduced at the Hannover Trade Fair in Germany this week, the BionicOpter is one of many projects the company has pursued under the aegis of its Bionic Learning Network. The network's purpose is to use the energy-efficient principles already found in nature and adapt them to automation technology.
Modeled after a dragonfly, Festo's latest sophisticated robot is the BionicOpter, which can independently move each of its wings to fly in any direction, as well as hover and glide.
The robotic dragonfly can speed up or slow down quickly, or even fly backwards, because of its ability to independently move each of its four wings. It can also float like a glider while holding its wings steady. Since it doesn't need to generate forward thrust by tilting forward, the BionicOpter can also fly horizontally. It's extremely lightweight at 175 gm (6.17 oz). Its body, made of flexible polyamide and terpolymer, is 44 cm (17.3 inches) long, and houses an ARM microcontroller, eight servo motors for wing actuation, a brushless motor, two 7.6V lithium polymer batteries, 2.4 GHz wireless modules, and inertia, acceleration, and position sensors. The head and body are actuated by four flexible muscles made of nitinol, a shape memory alloy (SMA) that expands when cooled and contracts when heated. An electrical current passing through these "muscles" makes them move the tail up and down and the head from side to side.
Each of the BionicOpter's carbon fiber-framed wings are covered with a thin foil material, and total wingspan is 63 cm (24.8 inches). Direction and intensity of each wing can be individually adjusted: The direction of each wing's thrust is determined by its swiveling motions, and its amplitude controller regulates the intensity of that thrust. Each wing's flapping frequency and twisting motions are also independently controlled, and data on wing position and twisting is recorded and evaluated while the dragonfly is in flight. Remote-controlled with a smartphone, the robot only needs its operator for steering and speed control. Software and electronics coordinate the robot's motions.
Before attempting the complexities of engineering the robot dragonfly, Festo developed its SmartBird, which can take off, and fly and land autonomously, rising by means of its flapping wings alone. Inspired by a herring gull, the robotic bird flies, glides, and sails. A complex flight control system in its torso and tail section, combined with its articulated torsional drive unit, lets SmartBird's wings twist at specific angles, as well as beat up and down to optimize airflow use without the requirement for additional devices to assist lift. The bird's wing position and torsion are monitored by ZigBee-based two-way radio communication, which conveys operating data such as battery charge and power consumption, as well as pilot input.
Although Festo's press release claims that the BionicOpter dragonfly robot is the first system that can perform all the flight maneuvers of a plane, a helicopter, and a glider, two of these abilities have previously been demonstrated in one machine by Japan's Ministry of Defense. The Japanese remote-controlled flying spherical robot can move in any direction, fly down narrow passageways or up and down stairways, and take off and land vertically anywhere, on surfaces of nearly any shape. Like a helicopter, it can hover for eight minutes continuously, but the orb also has wings that let it fly forward horizontally at up to 60 km/hour.
Nice video, Ann. Another great example of borrowing from nature. That approach seems to be everywhere these days. But I'll ask the same question my daughter asked when I showed her the video: what do thay use it for?
Festo does a lot of future-oriented expensive R&D, so right now the answer is probably they don't use it for anything. The R&D done under Festo's Bionic Learning Network, like practically all its other research, is done to develop new technologies for automation. There wasn't a lot of detail on applications for this robot, but the brochure at this link http://www.festo.com/net/SupportPortal/Files/248133/Festo_BionicOpter_en.pdf contains some rather vague language that implies they envision a future networked, decentralized factory where: "Individual workpieces will themselves determine what functions they need plants to provide. This digital refinement will give rise to increasingly intelligent products that can actively support the production process thanks to increased functionality – from energy autonomy through to condition monitoring – in the smallest of installation spaces." In other words, way more robots/automated systems with much greater independent functioning.
Festo's robots are developed as, to begin with, proofs-of-concept/prototypes for industrial customers, not consumers. Given the quality of components, and the sophistication of design and engineering, even if this were ever for sale to consumers in quantities of 1, I'd guess the price range would be up there with the Transformer robot we covered http://www.designnews.com/document.asp?doc_id=25601 which costs $20,000. Or maybe 10x that much.
That makes sense, Ann. Could be that this technology will solve an automation need that is not apparent at this moment. Since we never know how new technology might be used, technology that is not need-based still has value. The guy at 3M who came up with the Post-It note certainly wasn't looking for a glue that wouldn't dry.
Rob, from the comments Festo makes in that brochure, I think the application is quite clear in their minds and the minds of their customers: independent autonomous robots whizzing around the plant, making their own decisions and networked via wireless comms technology. But who knows what else this little guy could do?
Yes, that is a super-cool robot. And the video is actually quite beautiful. I like when science and art combine to create something technologically innovative but also creative. It seems like robot design, as it gets more sophisticated, is moving away from utilitarian design to something that is more artful.
I agree Liz, There is a perception that robots need to be intelligent and glamorous. Of course there is a big difference between industrial robots and humanlike robots. When they start looking and talking like Ginger from Gilligans Island, then I will want to get one. Industrial robots have less intelligence and looks than an automatic tranmission (unless you spend a fortune on software, sensors, barcode readers, and vision systems) and they will perform the same repetetive task millions of times without failure - but you will still have to look at all those wires...
Yes, Greg, you're right, industrial robots certainly aren't very sexy. But they seem to be heading in a more attractive direction as well. I'm thinking of Baxter from Rethink Robots, which may not exactly look like a work of art, but is certainly easier on the eyes than traditional industrial robots.
Yes, you're probably right, but I did see a story about someone who created this whole art piece by using a robotic arm...I can't remember if I did a story on it or not. I'll dig up the link. Or maybe you covered it? It was quite cool!
As a professional machine designer/builder in the world of automation, I have been familiar with Festo for years. They are well known for their pneumatic components, German engineering, and quality. This is an impressive display of minaturization and servo control. Festo could step into the stepper or servo motor/control market with this. The obvious application for this is as a radio controlled toy. Four channel helicopters with radio transmitter, battery, charger and airframe sell for $128 which are durable and have spare parts at reasonable prices. If Festo could retail these for say under $250 ready to fly, I suspect they could sell like hotcakes...
I agree that this robotic dragonfly is on a level consistent with what Festo has done in the past. Festo is indeed a high quality product manufacturer. That part is certanly true.
I also agree that remote control with a dedicated remote control transmitter is a far better choice, not only because of having better range and easier control, but also to avoid using an expensive smartphone in an application that certaily can result in damage. LOts of folks have smartphones, but a dedicated tramsmitter would be a very worthwhile alternative. Besides, then the monitor screen could be a bit larger, so that we could better see what the dragonfly sees. After all, this one would be a very good surveilance platform.
Greg, thanks for your input. Festo is the only company who's made me link the words "robots" and "beautiful." But even aside from that, one of the most interesting things about them as a company is their use of vertical integration. It's reminiscent of IBM in the old days--superb technology, apparently deep pockets and a desire not just to do better than their competitors, but to make the best possible machines.
@Ann, thanks for post. Kudos to Festo for creating this little robotic dragonfly. This just shows that there are many things we can learn from nature. Its not an easy task to mimic the energy-efficient principles already found in nature and Festo has done a pretty good job of implementing such solutions in its products.
AnandY, you're welcome. I've seen photos and videos of hundreds of robots that were designed using biomimicry, and most of them are pretty clunky. Festo's machines don't even look or move like machines, if you ask me.
This dragonfly is an amazing piece of technology, not only because of the very cool flying robot end-product but also because of the innovative melding of technologies and materials.
To address Rob's question, bluntly but not rudely, who cares what they are going to use it for? Kudos to Festo for pursuing the projects they have undertaken - they are expanding the possibilities and our imaginations. And if they have no end use in mind before development started, they deserve even more credit.
Corporate America has become so focused on return on investment and the bottom line that it is holding money back from pure research for curiosity's sake. Sometimes one should pursue curiosity, pursue the "what if..." just because the challenge is there. There is rarely a lack of practical applications that can be imagined or developed after the fact.
I've watched the video 5 times and still wonder how does the thing actually fly? And how did Festo figure out the wing movement to accomplish it?
And in line with Elizabeth's comment, I have forwarded this link to a lot of my non-engineering, non-mechanical friends because they will appreciate it not for the engineering, but for its beauty, its unexpectedness and its artfulness.
Clinton, thanks for your feedback, especially the point about the focus on ROI above all else. And I completely agree about the sense of wonder. That's one of my husband's favorite phrases: he uses it to describe what he likes about great science fiction, like Dune, or Star Trek when it was new, or Simmons' Endymion series.
It's funny, I just talked to Festo about a motor drive product and it occurred to me that it's quite impressive that such technical-minded people could also have come up with something as creative as the dragon-fly robot. There's definitely two sides of the brain at work here.
Festo was new to me until recently so now I'm seeing exactly what you mean. It's sometimes hard to find designers who can execute on both technical engineering and cutting-edge design. I imagine this is a company to watch, and perhaps even that will set trends for future robotic design.
Ann, I agree with you on the potential cost of these systems which are very well done and with quality components. Some motion control companies target the theme parks and entertainment venues; this kind of technology would seem to fit into those markets (not necessarily the dragonfly) and I wouldn't be surprised if Festo has experience in that area.
Re applications, I find it interesting that what looks a lot like the flying robots designed for military purposes is instead a robot designed for industrial uses. These may seem like very different applications,. but they share a lot of functions--and thus features and technology--in common.
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