I’ve completely lost track of time over the past couple of months (it’s been months, right?), but somehow, the folks over at Festo have held it together well enough to continue working on their Bionic Learning Network robots. Every year or two, Festo shows off some really quite spectacular bio-inspired creations, including robotic ants and butterflies, hopping kangaroos, rolling spiderbots, flying penguins and flying jellyfish, and much more. This year, Festo is demonstrating two new robots: BionicMobileAssistant (a “mobile robot system with pneumatic gripping hand”), and BionicSwift, a swarm of beautiful aerial birds.
The flight of birds has always fascinated humankind. In Festo’s Bionic Learning Network, flying according to the natural world also has a long tradition. With the construction of the BionicSwifts, Festo is consistently continuing the further development of its bionic flying objects.
The BionicMobileAssistant moves autonomously in space and can - thanks to a neural network - independently recognize objects, grasp them adaptively and work with people. The mobile assistance system has a modular structure and consists of three subsystems: a ball bot, an electric robotic arm and the BionicSoftHand 2.0 - a pneumatic gripper that is inspired by the human hand.
Let’s talk about BionicMobileAssistant first, because it’s probably the most practical (albeit least exotic). Developed in partnership with ETH Zurich, it’s a combination of three modules: the mobile base (a ballbot), a robot arm (called DynaArm), and the BionicSoftHand 2.0, a pneumatic hand that was shown last year. The ballbot is a fairly familiar design; it’s nice because it’s completely omnidirectional on a very small footprint, with the disadvantage of being unstable, requiring constant control input to keep from falling over. It’s particularly effective on smooth and mostly flat surfaces, especially in tight quarters, and has the added advantage of being able to handle impulses as long as it has room to maneuver.
For its size, the DynaArm is impressive. It’s 4 DoF with a payload of 8 kg, but the entire arm weighs under 8 kg itself, with each of the motor assemblies (motor, gear unit, motor control electronics, sensors) weighing just 1 kg. On the end of the arm, the BionicSoftHand 2.0 is pneumatic, and covered in a fabric with 113 embedded tactile sensors. Some RealSense cameras make the whole thing at least a little bit autonomous, although these robots that Festo puts together tend to focus more on design rather than autonomy.
The BionicSwifts are not the first birds that Festo has developed, but those flexible, feathered wings are particularly lovely.
To execute flight maneuvers as true to life as possible, the wings are modeled on the plumage of real birds. The individual lamellae are made of an ultralight, flexible but very robust foam and lie on top of each other like shingles. Connected to a carbon quill, they are attached to the actual hand and arm wings as in the natural model.
During the wing upstroke, the individual lamellae fan out so that air can flow through the wing. This means that the birds need less force to pull the wing up. During the downstroke, the lamellae close up so that the birds can generate more power to fly. Due to this close-to-nature replica of the wings, the BionicSwifts have a better flight profile than previous wing-beating drives.
Each BionicSwift (there are five in the flock) weighs a mere 42 grams, of which 6 g is a battery. One motor controls the wing flapping, while just two other motors are required to actuate the flight surfaces for steering. Flight time is a solid seven minutes.
I like how Festo justifies their development work on BionicSwift by saying “the intelligent networking of flight objects and GPS routing makes for a 3D navigation system that could be used in the networked factory of the future.” Um, sure, but I don’t think you needed to develop a beautiful flying robot bird to test out that concept, right? But whatever business case Festo needs to make to keep their bionic learning network up and running, I’m in favor of.
[ Festo ]
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.