Festo’s BionicSoftHand
Festo’s BionicSoftHand controls movements via pneumatic bellows structures in its fingers. Fingers bend when their chambers are filled with air. The thumb and index finger also have a swivel module, which allows them to move laterally, giving the hand 12 deg. of motion.

Pneumatics, Robotics, and Artificial Intelligence Come Together

The human hand, with its unique combination of power, dexterity and fine motor skills, is a true miracle tool of nature. What could be more natural than equipping robots in collaborative workspaces with a gripper that emulates this model of nature? Enter the BionicSoftHand.

The BionicSoftHand is pneumatically operated, so it can interact safely and directly with people. Unlike the human hand, the BionicSoftHand has no bones. Its fingers consist of flexible bellows structures with air chambers. The bellows are enclosed in the fingers by a proprietary 3D textile coat knitted from elastic and high-strength fibers. Multiple position and pressure sensors work in concert with the textile to determine exactly where the skin expands and transmits power, and where it encounters resistance. These features combine to make the actuator light, flexible, adaptable, and sensitive, yet able to exert strong forces.

To minimize the use of tubing, developers designed a small, digitally controlled valve terminal which is mounted directly onto the hand. This eliminates the need to route tubing through the length of the hand for powering fingers. As a result, the BionicSoftHand can be quickly and easily connected and operated with only one two tubes—one for supply air and one for exhaust. The proportional piezo valves used in the terminal provide precise control of finger movement and applied force.

Artificial Intelligence

The learning methods of machines using artificial intelligence (AI) are comparable to those of humans—either positive or negative response.  Feedback follows action actions in order to classify and learn from them. BionicSoftHand uses the method of reinforcement learning. This means that instead of imitating a specific action, the hand is merely given a goal. It uses the trial-and-error method to achieve its goal. Based on received feedback, it gradually optimizes its actions until the task is solved successfully.

Dr. Elias Knubben, head of Corporate Research and Innovation at Festo GmbH, explains that the BionicSoftHand is essentially a sophisticated pneumatic gripper with AI based on the human model. Because the natural model for BionicSoftHand is the human hand, and it is pneumatically operated, it can interact safely and directly with people. The bionic robot hand uses AI to independently solve gripping and turning tasks similar to the human hand in interaction with the brain. Also, because the BionicSoftHand learns through trial-and-error methods, a digital-twin model was developed to accelerate learning.

BionicSoftArm: One Robot Arm, Many Possible Variations

The strict separation between the manual work of the factory worker and the automated actions of robots is becoming an increasingly grey area. Their work ranges are overlapping and merging into a collaborative working space. In doing so, human and machine will be able to simultaneously work together on the same workpiece or component in the future—without having to be shielded from each other for safety reasons.

The BionicSoftArm is a new development of Festo's BionicMotionRobot, whose range of applications has been significantly expanded. Its modular design can be combined with up to seven pneumatic bellows segments and rotary drives. This guarantees maximum flexibility in terms of reach and mobility, enabling it to work around obstacles even in the tightest of spaces. At the same time, it is completely flexible and can work safely with people.

The modular robot arm can be used for a wide variety of applications, depending on the design of a mounted gripper, such as the BionicSoftHand. Like the BionicSoftHand, the BionicSoftArm uses flexible kinematics to interact directly and safely with humans. The kinematics also make it easy for it to adapt to different tasks at various locations in production environments, ultimately eliminating costly safety devices such as cages and light barriers.

Festo will be showcasing the BionicSoftHand, the BionicSoftArm, Future and Bionic Concepts, and product innovations for factory and process automation at Hall 15, Booth D11 at Hannover Fair 2019, April 1 to 5. Click here for more information on the BionicSoftHand, or click here to watch an informative video.

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