Learn how one company took inspiration from nature to reinvent the robotic arm in this video excerpted from NOVA: “Making Stuff Wilder.” Host and technology columnist David Pogue meets with engineer Heinrich Frontzek to find out about the Bionic Handling Assistant—a machine modeled after an elephant's trunk. A traditional robotic arm is rigid and unable to work closely with humans, but this new design is more flexible and less dangerous. The company has also developed a new kind of adaptive gripper, inspired by fish fins, that is flexible and able to securely grasp even fragile objects, like eggs.
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Over hundreds of billions of years, living things have adapted to thrive in their environments. The forms and processes of nature, from the anatomy of birds to methods of seed dispersal, can serve as models for human designs. For example, early human flight was influenced by the study of birds, while Velcro® was invented by an engineer after an encounter with the prickly seed pods of a plant. Nature's designs can inspire solutions to human problems.
The study of nature for the purpose of solving human problems is known by many terms, including bionics, biomimicry, biomimetics, and bio-inspired engineering. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, they can have subtly different meanings. The terms biomimicry and biomimetics are both derived from the Greek words bios, meaning “life,” and mimesis, meaning “to imitate.” According to some, an emphasis on sustainability distinguishes biomimicry from other terms. The term bionic tends to be associated with artificial body parts and medical technologies (at least in some part as a result of a 1970s popular television series—The Six Million Dollar Man). However, the broad definition of all of these terms is the application of biological methods and systems to technology.
Festo, a German company that specializes in automation, established the Bionic Learning Network—a collaboration among universities, institutions, and companies—to learn from nature and explore new ideas. Designers and engineers at Festo and the Fraunhofer Institute use nature as inspiration to come up with innovative technologies such as the Bionic Handling Assistant, which is modeled after an elephant's trunk. Traditional robotic arms are made of metal and widely used in manufacturing, but they can be hazardous around humans. The Bionic Handling Assistant is a new type of robotic arm that is lightweight, flexible, and will yield in a collision. Made of hollow plastic chambers that are inflated and deflated with air to control its movements, the arm has an impressive range of motion similar to an elephant's trunk. At the end of the arm is an adaptive gripper, called the FinGripper, that can grasp and move objects. The way that the FinGripper moves is based on the movement of a fish’s fin when it encounters an object. The FinGripper is compliant and can securely grab hold of even fragile and irregularly shaped objects. Because the Bionic Handling Assistant is designed to work safely near people, it opens up many potential applications for robotic arms, such as assisting in laboratories and hospitals.
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