Drives and Controls Magazine
Bionic ants and butterflies head for Hannover
Published:  25 March, 2015

At next month’s Hannover Fair in Germany, Festo will unveil the two latest additions to its menagerie of bionic creatures: piezo-powered ants that collaborate with each other to perform tasks; and lightweight butterflies that use an infrared tracking system to fly around freely without colliding with each other.

Festo will also be showing a prototype gripping system, modelled on a chameleon’s tongue, that can adapt to grip objects of various shapes and sizes.

Festo's BionicAnts (above) are designed to demonstrate collaborative behaviour by working together under a fixed set of rules. Their six legs are powered by 18 piezo-ceramic actuators. Stereo 3D cameras built into their heads help to identify objects and tell them where they are. The ants’ polymer bodies have been created using 3D printing techniques, while their circuits are formed from conductive metallic paths that run across their bodies.

The ants work together as a group to solve problems. “They communicate with each other and coordinate both their actions and movements,” explains Dr-Ing Heinrich Frontzek, Festo’s head of corporate communication and future concepts. “Each ant makes its decisions autonomously, but in doing so is always subordinate to the common objective and thereby plays its part towards solving the task at hand.”

Festo sees this collaborative behaviour as pointing the way to factories of the future where production systems based on intelligent components will adapt themselves flexibly to different production scenarios.

Festo’s eMotionButterflies can fly freely without colliding with each other

The second new bionic technology, dubbed eMotionButterflies, is intended to demonstrate issues such as functional integration, ultra-lightweight construction and networked real-time communications between individuals. The 60cm-wingspan butterflies, each of which weighs just 60 grams, can fly freely and are tracked using an array of ten infrared cameras which follow markers on their bodies, capturing 160 images every second. Using this information, the butterflies are guided along paths to ensure that they will not collide.

The third new technology, called FlexShapeGripper (above), has been developed by Festo in collaboration with the University of Oslo. It can pick up and put down objects in a wide variety of shapes using a water-filled silicone cap that wraps itself around the items. The technology has similarities to the Versaball gripper developed by Empire Robotics in the US. Festo has no plans to commercialise the technology at this stage.