Festo's Robotic Penguins Fly and Swim
Festo Corporation Posted 04/24/2009
By Karen Field, Editor-in-Chief, Design News
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.
An 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 be entertaining.
Researchers 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 swimming.
The 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.
But it's more than flexible wings that give these birds their nearly unfettered freedom of motion.
Their 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.
Looking to 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.
Continuously 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 – something even their natural counterparts cannot do.
No doubt 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 is suspended in an adaptive gripping device. 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.
The gripper 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.
The 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.
"With this 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.
As for 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.