Festo Builds a Better Dragonfly

November 06, 2014

Combining nine electric motors with sensors, a microcontroller, and a lightweight carbon-fiber frame, engineers from Festo Corp. have created a mechanical dragonfly that can master more flight maneuvers than an airplane, helicopter, or glider.

Known as the BionicOpter, the ultra-light dragonfly uses two pairs of wings that enable it to accelerate swiftly, turn abruptly, slow down, or even fly backwards. Festo built the fly as part of its Bionic Learning Network, and hopes to use the lessons learned to one day breathe unexpected forms of innovation into its products. "It's research for research's sake," Frank Langro of Festo told a media gathering at Pack Expo this week. "But we do hope to one day bring it into our customers' everyday products."

Watch as Festo engineers demonstrate the BionicOpter:

The BionicOpter is said to be based on the giant dragonflies that roamed the earth as far back as 290 million years ago. It has a wingspan of 24 inches and incorporates all the elements needed for flight, including four wings powered by eight servo motors, one brushless motor, a MEMS-based gyroscope, ARM microcontroller (MCU), and two small lithium polymer battery cells. Thanks to its use of a carbon fiber frame and a thin foil covering, the giant mechanical bug weighs less than half a pound.

Flight maneuvers are enabled by a 13 degree-of-freedom (DOF) design. A motor at the bottom of the housing beats the four wings at frequencies ranging from 15 Hz to 20 Hz. Servo motors also twist the wings (from horizontal to vertical) and control the amplitude of their movement. Finally, four flexible "muscles" made from a shape memory alloy enable the dragonfly's head to move horizontally and its head to move vertically.

Listen as Markus Schaffer of Festo explains the design of the mechanical dragonfly.

The flapping wings enable the BionicOpter to hover like a helicopter, fly horizontally, or float like a glider. Festo engineers demonstrated all of those maneuvers at the Pack Expo demonstration.

Festo's Bionic Learning Networks has previously produced other examples of biomimicry, including a bionic kangaroo, a mechanical jellyfish called AquaJelly, and a mechanical flying seagull known as SmartBird. Lessons learned from the jellyfish design are currently being incorporated into a robotic gripper, the company said.

"Nature is efficient in its use of energy," Andrew Wagner of Festo told Design News. "The idea is to take that efficiency and bring it to industrial automation."

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