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.
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.
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.
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.