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Festo's New Bio-Inspired Robots Include a Feathery Bionic Bird

A flock of swifts and a ballbot mobile manipulator are the newest robots from the German company

3 min read
Festo bionic swift robot bird
Photo: Festo

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 butterflieshopping kangaroosrolling spiderbots, flying penguins and flying jellyfishand 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.

Festo bionic swift birdPhoto: Festo

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 ]

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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