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Elephant’s trunk inspires safe handling technology

21 April, 2010

At the recent Hannover Fair, Festo unveiled a safe materials-handling device inspired by the elephant’s trunk. Unlike conventional handling systems, the Bionic Handling Assistant (BHA) gives way when it hits something, thus avoiding the usual hazards of accidental or deliberate contact between machines and humans.

Festo believes that the BHA could revolutionise the design of materials-handling systems and open up new applications in the handling industry, and in areas such as medical technology, care for the disabled and elderly, as well as in agricultural machinery and domestic appliances. On the first day of the Fair, the German chancellor Angela Merkel visited the Festo stand and was shown the BHA in action (below).

Despite its lightweight design, the flexible system can transmit large forces and can act as a precise gripping tool. Unlike heavy industrial robots, the BHA is characterised by a high mass-to-payload ratio, and smooth movements with more degrees of freedom. If it collides with anything, it yields immediately, without modifying its dynamic behaviour. The device then resumes its operation.

The Bionic Handling Assistant consists of three basic elements for spatial movement, together with a hand axis and a gripper with adaptive fingers. The basic elements each comprise three circularly arranged actuators tapering at an angle of three degrees. The actuators are supplied with compressed air controlled by proportional valves.

When the compressed air is discharged, the loop-shaped actuators act like springs to provide a resetting mechansim. Their extension is measured by sensors which control the system’s spatial movement. In the hand axis, three more actuators are arranged around a ball joint; their activation displaces the gripper by an angle of up to 30 degrees.

The BHA’s plastic components are produced using rapid manufacturing technologies which allow flexible components to be built up from thin layers of polyamide. Each new layer is fused with the underlying layer by a laser beam. The technology allows complex 3D shapes to be “printed” in small batches.

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