Pioneering robotics and automation firm Festo has introduced a new generation of bionic robots with articulated pneumatic joints modeled after the mechanisms developed by nature. The BionicCobot is a sensitive helping robot that Festo says is optimized for human-robot collaboration due to this bionic design.
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The design for the BionicCobot was inspired by the muscles and skeleton in the human arm. The lightweight robot uses pneumatic power like human muscles, expanding and contracting to flex the arm.
The robot's sensitivity comes from state-of-the-art sensors. When combined with the naturalistic movement of the bionic design, this makes the BionicCobot ideally suited for safe, direct cooperation with humans.
What are Bionic Robots?
Bionics (biologically inspired engineering) applies biological mechanisms and other natural systems to design modern technological and engineering solutions. Bionics is closely related to biomimetics, where scientists take inspiration from chemical reactions taking place in nature to engineer new chemical processes for applications in sectors such as renewable energy and waste management.
Festo has been focused on bionic robotics for some years. The company's BionicMotion robot arm was inspired by elephant trunks and moves freely using the same mechanical principles as in elephants' trunk muscles.
The Festo OctupusGripper robot wraps around objects and uses suction to pick them up. As the name implies, this bionic robot's design was inspired by the way octopuses can pick up delicate and complex items from the ocean floor with their tentacles.
Festo – BionicCobot (English)
Video Credit: Festo/YouTube.com
The BionicCobot is the bionic robot in this Festo bionic range. Its pneumatic power works like the muscles in your arm, contracting and expanding on opposite sides to manipulate the shoulder, elbow, wrist, and finger joints.
Festo believes that their bionic robots can demonstrate a hazard-free way of working with machines. Because their movements are naturalistic, which has been helped by compliant pneumatics, humans can work alongside these bionic robots directly as they would with a human coworker or assistant.
The intuitive human-robot interactions with these kinds of robots also make them much safer to work with than conventional machines. Conventional machinery works at scales, speeds, and square angles that are alien to subjective human experience. A device that behaves or at least moves like a biological organism is easier to intuitively understand and predict.
What are the Benefits of Bionic Robots?
With the advent of bionic robots like Festo's BionicCobot, the boundary between human and robot tasks is becoming much more blurred. This enables humans and robots to work together collaboratively rather than in disconnected silos.
This provides a much greater degree of flexibility to industries looking to employ robotic assistance. Modern manufacturing is moving away from the rigid processes of the Fordist era in the early 20th century – especially since the adoption of additive manufacturing techniques like 3D printing.
Instead, manufacturers are building flexibility into their operations so that factories can switch production mid-shift, bring discrete elements of manufacturing under one roof, or use empty space and machinery for other projects simultaneously.
Bionic robots that are cost-effective, lightweight, and intuitive to work alongside are well suited for the modern, dynamic manufacturing industry.
These robots can also start to see applications in a wide range of other industries and human activities as their capabilities become more widely known. Logistics and transport, warehousing, shipping, construction, and mining can benefit from robot assistance alongside human workers.
Similarly, Festo's bionic robots' low cost and intuitive user experience make them well-suited for education settings. Whether teaching biology, engineering, robotics, computer science, or humanities subjects, these robots can engage students and bring life into the classroom.
How Does BionicCobot Work?
Using the muscular principle of agonist (player) and antagonist (opponent), Festo's engineers have made BionicCobot able to handle fine, delicate objects as well as heavier rugged items. Pneumatics mimicking human muscles expand and contract to manipulate the robot's joints, imitating the movements of a human arm.
There are three axes in BionicCobot's shoulder joint, two in the wrist and one each in the elbow and lower arm. Each axis contains a rotary vane with two air chambers that form a pair of pneumatic drives. These drives can be adjusted and fine-tuned by adding or removing compressed air. This pneumatic drive concept means that the BionicCobot's movements can be precisely controlled for rigidity.
The BionicCobot is also fitted with Festo's "Motion Terminal" technology. This new pneumatic automation system combines precise mechanics with sensors and control and measuring technology in a small space and prevents collision with other objects or people.
A robot operating system (ROS) open-source platform is used to program commands for BionicCobot. A graphic user interface provides intuitive controls through a tablet. The UI was developed in-house at Festo.
Engineering with Nature
Julian Vincent, professor of biomimetics at the University of Bath, UK, thinks engineering should take more inspiration from nature as only 12% of our technology overlaps with biology in terms of the mechanisms we use. Considering the millions of years of evolution that have developed natural mechanisms, perhaps there is still more to be learned from studying the world around us.
Continue reading: 3D Printed Prosthetic Limbs that Move
References and Further Reading
Festo.com. (2021) BionicCobot | Festo Corporate. [online] Available at: https://www.festo.com/group/en/cms/12746.htm
Roth, R. R. (1983) The Foundation of Bionics. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1353/pbm.1983.0005
Vincent, J. F. V., O. A. Bogatyreva, N. R. Bogatyrev, A. Bowyer, and A-K. Pahl (2006) Biomimetics: its practice and theory. Journal of the Royal Society Interface. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2006.0127