For Festo, Nature Shows the Way

18 May 2009

The most eye-catching display in the Festo stand at Hannover Fair were bionic ‘penguins’ swimming in a large tank and flying gracefully overhead. Taking their inspiration from nature, Festo’s engineers once again entertained the crowds with some serious motion control systems.

AirPenguin flying gracefully in alpha tests
AirPenguin flying gracefully in alpha tests

Dr. Eberhard Veit (photo), Chairman of the Management Board and Director of Technology and Market Positioning at Festo AG, said it was a concept of ‘maximum performance with minimum energy consumption’ as shown in sea and air animals.

‘We are using bionics to sound out new technologies and to offer our customers even more efficient solutions in automation,’ he explained.


PHOTO: An AirPenguin flys gracefully in alpha tests

inside Festo's headquarters building in Esslingen.


Over the past few years, the Festo Bionic Learning Network—a co-operation of Festo with several universities, institutes and development companies—has become established as an integral part of Festo’s innovation processes, he says.

In biomechatronics, Festo is investigating new approaches in the control and regulation of autonomous bionic systems, all the way up to smart system integration and the application of state-of-the-art communication technologies.

Adaptive and self-regulating processes will acquire increasing significance in the future for the automation of production, the company believes.

In this process, the ongoing development of sensor and regulating technologies along the road to decentralised, self-controlling and self-organising systems is benefiting from inspiration provided by nature.

Dr. Eberhard Veit
Dr. Eberhard Veit


The bionic penguins, called ‘AquaPenguins,’ were a main attraction, swimming around in a large water tank.

Festo says they are designed as autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that independently orient themselves and navigate through the water tank and develop differentiated, variable behaviour patterns in group operation.


PHOTO: Dr. Eberhard Veit


The penguins’ hydrodynamic body contours and elegant wing propulsion principle were adopted from their natural prototypes. The ‘wings’ are made of an elastic matrix of silicon with spring steel embedded in them so they are able to twist with each stroke. All of the body parts—from the head to the tail—are flexible and have the ability to twist and turn like a fish.

An entirely new feature was the torso that can move in any direction. To make such an “organic” change of shape possible, the head, neck and tail segments were based on a new 3D Fin Ray® structure. This structure, derived from the tail fin of a fish, has thus been extended into three-dimensional space for the first time. The actuators and control electronics are housed in the dry main segment of the torso.

The robotic penguins manoeuvred in cramped spatial conditions, turning on the spot when necessary and—unlike their biological archetypes—even swam backwards.

The manoeuvres were supported by an intelligent 3D sensor system To analyse their surroundings, the penguins were fitted with special 3D sonar which makes use of broadband ultrasound signals, similar to those used by dolphins and bats.

The penguins could swim collision-free in group operation, with depth control, pressure and temperature compensation, and positional stability.

Festo’s AquaPenguin going for a swim
Festo’s AquaPenguin going for a swim


PHOTO: Getting ready for an autonomous

swim, Festo's AquaPenguins dive into the tank.



So automated were the penguins, some of them could even fly!

Floating overhead at the show visitors saw ‘AirPenguins’ which were based on similar concepts and taught by Festo engineers ‘autonomous flight in the sea of air.’ The air wings were made from polyurethane foam.

A group of three flying penguins hovered freely through an air space that was monitored by invisible ultrasound transmitting stations. The penguins moved freely within this defined space; a microcontroller gave them ‘free will’ to explore it.

It’s not all just for show, says Festo.

If the 3D Fin Ray® structure of the head and tail sections is transferred to the requirements of automation technology, it can be used for instance in a flexible tripod with a very large scope of operation in comparison with conventional tripods.

Fitted with electric drive mechanisms, the BionicTripod from Festo for example makes for precise, rapid movements, just like the AirPenguin.

Festo says the transfer to automation technology is also to be found by analogy in regulating technology, for example in the new VPPM and VPWP proportional pressure-regulating valves for actuator pneumatics.

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