A team from automation specialist Festo and the Fraunhofer research institute in Germany has won a science and technology prize worth £200,000 for its development of an ‘elephant’s trunk’ bionic handling assistant.
The handling assistant opens up new applications for robots by enabling direct, safe interaction between humans and machines. Festo said that typical applications would include uses in hospitals, rehabilitation and care homes for the elderly, agriculture, automotive and domestic appliances.
Festo worked with the Fraunhofer Institute to drive the project. The research and development included using pneumatically-operated bellows for the drive system, and the application of additive manufacturing technology. This technology enables complete components, including integral moving parts, to be ‘grown’ from polyamide powder, by successively fusing layers of powder with a computer-controlled laser beam.
The Futures Prize was presented to Dr Peter Post and Markus Fischer of Festo, together with Andrzej Grzesiak from the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation. Post said: “The bionic handling assistant turns our vision into reality, for the first time enabling humans and machines to cooperate in complete safety.
“The main innovation lies in the system's unique human-machine cooperation; in the event of a collision with a human, the assistant's trunk gently moves aside without causing any harm. The trunk is made of lightweight plastic, which weighs considerably less than conventional steel or aluminium assemblies, and is driven by compressed air that naturally 'gives' on contact, preventing hard impacts and damage."
Markus Fischer, head of corporate design at Festo, added: “We were originally fascinated by the structure of the elephant’s trunk - it has over 40,000 individual muscle fibres and moves freely in all directions. This inspired us to mimic nature, by developing a handling system which goes far beyond anything currently available in industrial automation.”