2015 Festo Bionic Learning Network Developments Run the Gamut from Robotic Ants to a Flexible Gripper Inspired by a Chameleon’s Tongue

Natural models provide fresh inspiration in automation technology

HAUPPAUGE, NY June 30, 2015

Festo introduced today in North America the featured developments for 2015 in the company's Bionic Learning Network - the basic research effort designed to use biomimicry and emerging technologies, like superconductors, to make automated processes even more efficient and productive.

This year's projects illustrate how individual systems can use communication to merge into an intelligent overall system, and how the intelligence of decentralized systems contributes to this process. Decentralized intelligent systems will be essential for the factory of the future.

BionicANTS - cooperation based on the behavior of ants

The technology carrier BionicANTS uses the cooperative behavior of ants as a model. Engineers from Festo used complex regulation algorithms to transfer the behavior of these insects to the world of technology: just like their models from nature, the BionicANTS cooperate in accordance with clearly defined rules. This enables the BionicANTS to react autonomously to different situations as individual units, to coordinate their behavior with each other, and to perform actions as a networked overall system. By pushing and pulling in a coordinated manner, BionicANTS shift loads that one ant could not move alone. All actions are based on a distributed catalog of rules that was devised in advance by means of mathematical model building and simulations and then programmed into each ant. The individual insects are thus able to make decisions autonomously, while nevertheless subordinating themselves to the common aim; each ant thus contributes its share to solving the task at hand.

The required exchange of information between the ants is conducted via radio modules in each torso. The regulation strategy comprises a multi-agent system, in which the participants have equal rights. With the 3D stereo camera in their heads, the ants recognize an object to be grasped and can determine their own locations. The BionicANTS cooperative behavior and decentralized intelligence open up interesting prospects for the factory of tomorrow. Future production systems will be based on intelligent components that can flexibly adapt to different production scenarios and process orders from the superordinate control level.

A novel application of 3D MID technology

The process to manufacture BionicANTS is also unique: for the first time, laser-sintered components are fitted with visible circuit structures in a Molded Interconnect Device (3D MID) process. The electrical circuitry is attached to the outer surface of the components, which assumes both a structural and an electrical function.

Grasping and walking by means of piezo technology

BionicANTS are fitted with piezo-ceramic bending transducers in their mouthparts for gripping objects, and also for their leg movements. The piezo elements can be precisely and rapidly controlled; they are energy-efficient and practically wear-free - and applied within an exceedingly small installation space. When the upper bending transducer is deformed, the ant raises its leg. With a lower pair of piezo elements, each leg can be precisely moved forward or backwards.

eMotionButterflies - ultra-lightweight flying objects with collective behavior

The aesthetically appealing bionic butterflies likewise illustrate complex topics from the world of future production such as functional integration, ultra-lightweight construction, and above all real-time optimized networked communication between individual systems. The eMotionButterflies vividly demonstrate how the virtual and real worlds can merge.

Coordinated flying thanks to indoor GPS

An external, well-networked guidance and monitoring system coordinates the individual eMotionButterflies autonomously and safely in three-dimensional space. The communication and sensor technology used constitutes an indoor GPS system that controls the butterflies' collision-free collective movement. The combination of integrated electronics and external camera technology using a host computer ensures process stability. To emulate the flight behavior of butterflies as closely as possible, the artificial butterflies are fitted with integrated electronics. These control the wings precisely and individually to effect the rapid flight movements. A human pilot is not required to control the eMotionButterflies. Pre-programmed flight paths for the bionic butterflies' maneuvers are stored on the host computer. By means of additionally stored behavior patterns, however, they can also fly autonomously. In this case, there is no direct communication between the eMotionButterflies. In devising the control system for the artificial butterflies, the developers benefited from the knowledge gained with the projects involving the BionicOpter and the eMotionSpheres. The indoor GPS was already used for the hovering spheres and was further developed for the eMotionButterflies with regard to the image rate of the cameras.

FlexShapeGripper - grasping like a chameleon's tongue

In addition to learning from nature, the aims of the Bionic Learning Network also include the timely recognition and promotion of new ideas and their joint implementation across company borders. The FlexShapeGripper is an excellent example of this. In close cooperation with the University of Oslo, Festo is now presenting a gripper with a working principle derived from the chameleon's tongue.
Modeled on nature

The chameleon strategically uses the tip of its tongue to catch its prey; it can target highly diverse insects in this process. Its tongue adapts flexibly to the particular insect. Once the chameleon has sighted its prey, it rapidly shoots out its tongue like an elastic band. The captive insect then adheres to it and is drawn in as on a fishing line.

Form-fitting gripping thanks to inversion

The FlexShapeGripper can grip, collect and release several objects of very different shapes in the one process without the need for manual conversion. This is made possible by its water-filled silicone cap, which wraps itself around the items being gripped in a flexible, form-fitting manner. This ability to adapt to different shapes gives the FlexShapeGripper its name. The holding and release mechanisms both operate pneumatically. No additional energy is required for the holding process. The yielding nature of compressible air facilitates the coordination of the handling and the gripper during the grasping process.

Soft gripping for a variety of tasks

In future, the FlexShapeGripper could be used wherever differently shaped objects are to be handled simultaneously; for example, in service robotics, in assembly tasks, or in the handling of small components. The FlexShapeGripper bionic model demonstrates approaches for new solutions in gripping technology with the help of pack-and-place processes and makes manufacturing units more flexible and adaptable. In the production of the future, increasingly flexible systems and components will be required that autonomously adapt to individual products. Adaptable grasping devises like the FlexShapeGripper can assume a significant role in this process.

The Bionic Learning Network

The Bionic Learning Network is an example Festo's commitment to technical education and training. In cooperation with students, universities, institutes, and development firms, Festo sponsors projects along with test and technology carriers. The aim is to make automated movement processes even more efficient and more productive with the help of bionics. The Bionic Learning Network demonstrates fascinating approaches to solving complex tasks.

Extensive background information, including detailed brochures on the design and background of each project, video, and still images covering the BionicANTS, eMotionButterflies, and FlexShapeGripper are available online. For an overview of the Bionic Learning Network and to find information on projects going back to 2006, visit http://www.festo.us.

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