Innovation inspired by nature: winners of the German Future Prize 2010
Dec 3, 2010
Inspired by the elephant’s trunk, researchers have developed an entirely new robot arm. Precision-tuned and flexible, this novel high-tech helper can work in industry and in the home. For this development, on December 1, Dr.-Ing. Peter Post and Dipl.-Ing. Markus Fischer of Festo, joined by Dipl.-Ing. Andrzej Grzesiak of the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA were awarded with the German Future Prize (Deutscher Zukunftspreis) 2010. German President Christian Wulff presented the award, which carries a purse of 250,000 Euro on December 1.
Innovations like this bionic robotic arm demonstrate the high level of research and development in Germany. In Europe, Germany is the leading research location. Around 2.6 percent of gross domestic product is invested in research and development – more than the OECD average of 2.3 percent. In German industry, expenditure on research and development is also above the worldwide average. And the urge to invent remains unquenched. In 2009 investors and entrepreneurs from Germany filed about eleven percent of the international patents, putting the country third in the world rankings.
Taking cues from nature
The elephant skillfully uses his trunk to lift an apple from the ground. Carefully, he surrounds it with the tip of the trunk and lifts it high above his head before placing it gently into the hand of his keeper. There are roughly 40,000 muscles that make the elephant‘s trunk an extremely flexible gripping hand that can move freely in any direction and can even rotate. An ingenious tool – flexible, powerful and yet sensitive.
A similar level of flexibility and gentle performance is provided by the high-tech trunk developed by researchers at the Festo company, working together with colleagues at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA. With three ‘fingers,’ the high-tech version cautiously lifts a raw egg from the hand of developer Peter Post before gingerly passing it along to Markus Fischer – almost as elegantly as its biological model.
The delicate and flowing movements are made possible by the sophisticated design of the bionic handling assistant. "The plastic trunk is made of bellows structures arrayed in series, a movable hand axis and a grabber with three fingers," explains Dr. Post, who heads up the research and development project at Festo.
The structural elements are flexible and can be manipulated using compressed air. If air is pumped into the trunk, the bellows structures extend as an accordion would. This is how the high-tech trunk can be extended from 70 to 110 centimetres in length.
The three fingers fitted to the trunk are also designed with a biological model in mind – the tail fin of a trout. It has a very special feature. If you press these "FinGrippers" lightly with your finger, rather than retract in the direction of the pressure, they respond by moving toward the source of pressure.
Design from nature – structure from science
The individual structural elements of the flexible arm are produced in additive manufacturing. This makes the plastic trunk especially light and soft. Working directly from design data, the components of the high-tech trunk are built up layer by layer, using fine polyamide powder.
"A pinpoint laser beam applies heat to melt the powder at the specified spots. Essentially, it all works much the same way as a printer, just in three dimensions," explains Andrzej Grzesiak of IPA. The major benefit: arbitrarily complex geometries and inner structures can be created with "additive manufacturing" There is no need for assembly anymore – the components are formed in a single work step.
Although it weighs just 1.8 kg, the flexible arm can lift up to 500 grams. By way of comparison, conventional industrial robots can only move roughly one tenth of their own weight. Another benefit of this novel "third hand". The system is particularly light and flexible because – unlike the classic robot – it is made of plastic instead of metal and works with compressed air. This allows a unique kind of teamwork between man and technology.
"At the moment, working near dynamically active machinery is dangerous. Our goal was to create a handling system that is inherently pliable – so that people can work with this system without any risks at any time," notes Markus Fischer, head of corporate design at Festo. The "third hand" can be used wherever people require mechanical support – as packaging sensitive goods or in a car repair shop, in rehabilitation or even in the household.