Nellie the elephant packed her trunk, and went to Hannover Fair

21 April 2010

This VIP didn’t have to worry about travelling on any of the scheduled airlines, and she got to Hannover on time for the big fair. It’s Festo’s latest concept project: a 'Bionic Handling Assistant' that offers a flexible and—emphasis on this—safe means of moving objects from one position to another.

Angela Merkel felt comfortable with Festo's robot.
Angela Merkel felt comfortable with Festo's robot.

One good reason to visit Hannover Fair is to visit the Festo stand and see what animal the 'bionic engineers' have decided to imitate. In the past, we've seen birds, dolphins, jellyfish … As it turns out, for this year 2010, it’s elephants.

The inspiration for the Bionic Handling Assistant actually comes from one highly specialised component: the elephants' trunk which is a fundamental part of the animals' olfactory system.

These are muscular, flexible extensions to their upper lip and nose, with finger-like growths known as proboscides which enable them to grasp food and other small objects. Not the easiest thing to try to replicate, but Festo’s engineers in the “Bionic Learning Network” had a go at it. The network is an alliance of educational establishments and specialist companies that explore bionic solutions for automation applications.

This latest concept, says Festo, could revolutionise the design of materials handling systems, and potentially opens up a host of entirely new application areas involving direct, non-hazardous contact between humans and robots.

If nothing else, it's the most interesting pick-and-place robot we've ever seen.

It employs “biomechatronics” technology and sets out to show that direct contact between machines and their human operators, whether accidental or intentional, is no longer hazardous. In the event of a collision with a human, the Bionic Handling Assistant yields immediately, without modifying its desired overall dynamic behaviour, and then resumes its operation.

This is quite unlike heavy industrial robots, where any unintended human machine interaction is likely to end up at a detriment to the human.

The Bionic Handling Assistant is characterised by what Festo engineers says is an “excellent mass-payload ratio,” and this provides smooth operating motion with more degrees of freedom.


The Assistant has of three basic elements for spatial movement, together with a hand axis with a ball joint, and a gripper with adaptive fingers.

Each basic element is made up of three circularly arranged pneumatic actuators, each actuator supplied with compressed air at the interfaces of the basic elements. Opposing movements are effected by the loop-like design of the actuators, which act like a spring when the compressed air is exhausted. Their extension is measured by position sensors, which control the system’s spatial movement.

In the hand axis, three further actuators are arranged around a ball joint. Their activation displaces the gripper by an angle of up to 30°. Festo SMAT safety position sensors register the travel and ensure precise alignment, and the company's VPWP proportional valves are used for pneumatic control. The overall result is a highly flexible system that can transmit high forces despite its lightweight design.

The fabrication of the materials for the “elephant’s trunk” is itself an interesting application of 3-D “printing.” This process, which uses polyamides as the base material, makes it possible to cost effectively produce intricate and complex products in small batch sizes. The polyamides are built up by applying thin layers onto a base platform, with each new layer being fused into place by means of a laser beam, hardening the layers only where it is programmed.

Watch a video of the elephant’s trunk here.  

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