Flying Penguins and Mechanical Jellyfish to Change the World

image captured from the sublime you tube video - click on the image to enjoy the movie

These mesmerizing movies of flying silver penguins, floating jellyfish and metal telescopic arms are sublime and alarming. They are engineered science fiction as real, tangible, tested, explorations directly mimicking nature to learn new engineering and mechanical principles.

And did I say they were sublime? They are extraordinary. Here are the jellyfish:

Let me give you an overview and then dive into some of the ideas that are emerging from these discoveries.

Festo and the Bionic Learning Group

Festo is “a leading world-wide supplier of automation technology” who are part of the Bionic Learning Group in Germany. It appears to be an incredible collaboration between the engineering company and local universities where “principles from nature provide fresh impulse for technology and industrial applications.”

They have an array of movies on you tube, but the real juiciness is their resource page, that includes gorgeous overviews of each project, with a list of specifications and findings from each project. I really recommend browsing through and doing some reading.

What are we learning from these robots?

Ok – so it is easy to either celebrate these with technological fanaticism, or to jump off the other side of the docks and look at these as a step towards a Bladerunner dystopian future of artificial intelligence eating our souls. But really, there are some pretty amazing discoveries from these projects, and it appears far too early to judge. For the most part these are incredible technologies without genuine applications, true research and development that should be the foundation for playful design explorations of the future.

Flexible arms inspired by the elephant trunk, and finger grips inspired from flexible fish fins

The finger grippers above are amazing (although all comic book nerds reading this are recognizing the similarities to Doctor Octopus – the terrible spiderman villain). By using thin wall structures and the perfect shape, these fin/fingers are able to close around a shape extremely delicately, without the need for articulated and complicated joints. The results are incredibly flexible grippers that are extremely simple to control. They appear to only require instructions for opening and closing, and allow the inherent intelligence of the shape to do the rest.

This is the sort of thinking is outlined in Dr Julian Vincent’s research. It highlights that “smart” technology need not be an enormous array of sensors and highly complex computing/processing power. This is inherent in most natural materials and structures, and yet seems to be a rare emerging property in human applications.

Modular robotics

In previous scenarios of sustainability I have obsessed about modular fabrication and customization of components. These complex little cubes seem to up the anti from the perspective of larger scale robotic elements. They are little articulated modules that plug into one another allowing flexibility of rotation and manipulation. They are more bulky than the elegant flexible trunks outlined above, and don’t appear to have been as developed as some of the other ideas, but they represent an interesting concept. Each module seems to have the ability to rotate, and includes either further interconnecting interfaces, or little hand grippers.

There needs to be more interesting scenarios of application around these modules. It appears to suffer from severe redundancy issues with the complicated connection interfaces, but perhaps some concepts using these as connection points between beams, pipes and other structural members could be suggestive of modular architecture and or product designs.

Fly like a bird

This is simply crazy. The collaborators along with Festo literally built a bird. It has no helium, so it is not lighter than air like the other Penguin and Stingray models, and actually has the right articulating wings to generate lift etc. Click on the image above and there is an amazing movie outlining the process of designing and building this weird and fascinating machine.

The final prototype is able to lift itself into the air off the ground and fly around in the wind. It glides, flaps and moves eerily similar to a normal gull, and has articulated wings with a particular torquing structure that is apparently the latest and greatest fluid dynamic thinking.

It’s all pretty wild and wonderful. Not sure what the next step in this project is… likely military drones, since it is where all the money is, but it clearly highlights an important evolution in the mechanisms of flight.

Bionic Technology

So… what are the thoughts around these projects? They’re incredible, literal translations of nature, but what will these technologies be the foundation of in the future? Who needs this thinking beyond the automation and fabrication realm? Not sure that my jet lagged brain has the answers to these questions right now, but will be curious to follow these developments.

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