Every year as part of its Bionic Learning Network, robotics and automation company Festo creates incredibly impressive bio-inspired robotics designs. They don’t make their products commercially available, rather they use them to explore ways to innovate industrial automation. Over the years they’ve designed robotic kangaroos, seagulls, and even butterflies but their latest design is notably less animal inspired.
Instead, Festo has designed FreeMotionHandling, an autonomous flying sphere that’s able to pick up objects, and transport them around rooms in an attempt to explore simultaneous gripping and flying capabilities in robotics and hopefully provide something that could revolutionise workplace assistance. You can see it in action below:
FreeMotionHandling is made of a round inflated plastic body that’s been filled with helium. To provide vibrational stability and make flight possible, it’s ringed by a delicate carbon frame that has eight propellers attached. Four of these propellers are positioned horizontally and four vertically to enable dynamic movement in all spatial directions and 180 degree rotation.
According to Festo’s brochure, the robot’s gripping mechanism has been inspired by the way a chameleon’s tongue works, wrapping completely around the object and drawing it into the balloon using a rope winch. We’re just trying not to be reminded of the mouth of the alien in the 2001 film Evolution.
After it’s picked the desired object up, FreeMotionHandling simply takes it to its destination and delivers it by releasing the rope winch and reducing the pressure which holds the object in place. Festo say that it’s actually possible to pick up several objects to carry at once, working by a last-in-first-out principle to release the objects one by one at different locations.
FreeMotionHandling doesn’t require a person to control it, instead it uses an indoor GPS system, already used on the company’s eMotionSpheres and eMotionButterflies, and two cameras to monitor its surroundings allowing it to react to its environment, as well as detect the objects it has to pick up.
With FreeMotionHandling, Festo say they’ve created “an autonomous flying assistance system which can, for the first time, interact with people without any problems.” They say that unlike other indoor flying objects “the handling system does not have to keep at a safe distance and can also stay in the air for much longer.”
As safe as Festo assure us FreeMotionHandling is, we can’t help but be reminded of this:
Like the rest of Festo’s experiments it’s unlikely we’ll see FreeMotionHandling be released commercially as it is currently, but it’s likely that parts of its technology will be adapted for other purposes. As long as it sticks to picking up inanimate objects, we should be fine.