Hannover, Germany -- As two giant electric-powered
penguins glided gracefully by overhead, Marcus Fischer explained to me that the
design group he heads up at Festo often takes its cue from nature when
developing new technologies.
animatronic super-arachnid. A robotic jellyfish. And now this year's penguins. Two that fly and
two that swim underwater (unless I missed some other acrobatics) reinforced once
again that a visit to Festo's booth at the Hannover Fair never fails to entertain.
at this German automation company, says Fischer, were inspired by the anatomy
of real penguins in their work on advanced motion systems. Although penguins
cannot fly, they have wing surfaces that make for high efficiency when
seaworthy penguins sport wings of spring steel embedded in an elastic matrix of
silicon, producing a sleek profile and the ability to twist to the most
efficient pitch angle with each stroke. The flat, flexible wings of the
airborne penguins are made of polyurethane foam and are suspended by a strut at
the pivot point of the creature's torso.
more than flexible wings that give these birds their nearly unfettered freedom
torsos are able to move flexibly in any direction because of specially designed
head, neck, and tail segments that mimic the tail fin of a fish. I grew up in Minnesota, Land of
10,000 lakes, so I know something about fish and the way they can flop around
on a boat deck.
mimic that motion, Festo engineers constructed the penguins' key body parts out
of flexible struts connected at their joints by a series of rings, allowing the
structure to move in three dimensions.
variable control of the wing's digital actuators, along with advanced navigation
and communication, allows the birds to explore their environments, either freely
or within a defined motion profile. They can even swim backwards â something
even their natural counterparts cannot do.
about it, the penguins wowed the crowd.
But the real
story for engineers is how Festo is extending the penguin technology to a form-fit
gripping technology called the "BionicTripod." Currently in the prototype stage, this futuristic pick-and-place system is based on the same principles as the robotic penguins' ultra-flexible anatomy, namely a series of lightweight, fiberglass rods and connecting links that form a tripod from which an adaptive gripping device is suspended. As the rods are manipulated, the tripod can be
oriented in any direction within a 90-degree envelope, providing huge
flexibility in pick-and-place applications.
itself is made up of a pneumatic bellows and three fingers. Like the tripod's
design, each finger consists of two flexible bands that form a triangle with
connecting links so it has a wide range of motion.
lightweight device is made of polyamide and is fabricated from the same
selective laser sintering process used in rapid prototyping. Lower weight
translates to a higher degree of energy efficiency. And of course there is the
flexibility in motion.
design, it's possible to grasp objects of different forms and even fragile
parts as the gripping fingers adapt to the part's contours," says Fischer.
To wit, the
company is currently embarking on an experimental project involving plant
bulbs. This kind of field work will help Festo engineers optimize the
technology and work out a cost structure for successful commercialization.
what's in store for next year at the Hannover Fair, with Festo's ongoing focus
on speed and new innovations like its fast-switching valve terminals and
integrated linear motors, I'm guessing robotic cheetahs. Or possibly cockroaches.