Robotic arm is based on 'elephant's trunk' concept

Paul Boughton

Festo launched its latest bionic concept project at the 2010 Hannover Fair. Known as the Bionic Handling Assistant, the concept offers a flexible and safe means of moving objects from one position to another. It could revolutionise the design of materials handling systems and potentially opens up a host of entirely new application areas involving direct, non-hazardous contact between humans and robots. These include equipment for use in hospitals, rehabilitation and care homes for the elderly, as well as agricultural machinery and even domestic appliances - anything, in fact, that requires risk-free mechanical assistance.
The Bionic Handling Assistant stems from Festo's Bionic Learning Network, which is an alliance of educational establishments and specialist companies tasked with exploring bionic technologies for future automation applications. The inspiration for the Bionic Handling Assistant comes from elephants' trunks, which are muscular, flexible extensions to their upper lip and nose, with finger-like proboscides that enable them to grasp food and other small objects.
Festo's Bionic Handling Assistant employs highly innovative biomechatronics technology and introduces a concept whereby direct contact between machines and their human operators - whether accidental or intentional - is not hazardous. In the event of a collision with a human, the Bionic Handling Assistant yields immediately, without modifying its desired overall dynamic behaviour, and then resumes its operation. Unlike heavy industrial robots, the Bionic Handling Assistant is characterised by an excellent mass/payload ratio, provides smooth operating motion with more degrees of freedom, and makes very efficient use of resources.
The Bionic Handling Assistant consists of three basic elements for spatial movement, together with a hand axis with a ball joint, and a gripper with adaptive fingers. Each basic element comprises three circularly arranged pneumatic actuators tapering at an angle of 3 degrees; each actuator is supplied with compressed air at the interfaces of the basic elements. Opposing movements are effected by the loop-like design of the actuators, which act like a spring when the compressed air is exhausted. Their extension is measured by position sensors that form part of the spatial movement control system. In the hand axis, three further actuators are arranged around a ball joint; their activation displaces the gripper by an angle of up to 30 degrees. Festo SMAT safety position sensors register the travel and ensure precise alignment, and the company's VPWP proportional valves are used for pneumatic control. The overall result is a highly flexible system that can transmit high forces despite its lightweight design.
The Bionic Handling Assistant is manufactured using additive rapid manufacturing technologies that facilitate the production of individual moveable components from polyamide. This form of 3D printing makes it cost-effective to produce intricate, complex products in small batch sizes.
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