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Award honours commercial development of ‘elephant’s trunk’ bionic handling assistant

08 December 2010

A research team from automation specialists Festo and the Fraunhofer research institute (IPA) has won one of the world's most prestigious science and technology awards, for its development of a novel 'elephant's trunk' bionic handling assistant. The award includes a prize of more than £200,000 and honours this technological innovation, which is likely to have significant economic and social benefits.

The Futures Prize was presented to Dr. Peter Post and Markus Fischer of Festo, together with Andrzej Grzesiak from the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA), by the German President, Christian Wulff, during a ceremony marking the occasion.

The Bionic Handling Assistant mimics an 'elephant's trunk' and opens up entirely new applications for robots by enabling direct, safe interaction between humans and machines. Typical applications will include uses in hospitals, rehabilitation and care homes for the elderly, as well as agriculture and even domestic appliances - in fact, virtually anywhere that requires mechanical assistance.

"The Bionic Handling Assistant turns our vision into reality, for the first time enabling humans and machines to cooperate in complete safety," explains Dr Post, spokesman for the development team and Head of Research at Festo. "The main innovation lies in the system's unique human-machine cooperation; in the event of a collision with a human, the Assistant's trunk gently moves aside without causing any harm. The trunk is made of lightweight plastic, which weighs considerably less than conventional steel or aluminium assemblies, and is driven by compressed air that naturally 'gives' on contact, preventing hard impacts and damage."

According to Markus Fischer, Head of Corporate Design at Festo, "We were originally fascinated by the structure of the elephant's trunk - it has over 40,000 individual muscle fibres and moves freely in all directions. This inspired us to mimic nature, by developing a handling system which goes far beyond anything currently available in industrial automation."
Festo enlisted the support of Andrzej Grzesiak of the Fraunhofer Institute to drive the project. The research and development included using pneumatically-operated bellows for the drive system, and the application of revolutionary additive manufacturing technology. This technology enables complete components, including integral moving parts, to be 'grown' from polyamide powder, by successively fusing layers of powder with a computer-controlled laser beam.

On behalf of the development team, Dr. Veit, Chairman of Festo stated: "The Bionic Handling Assistant is the result of a fantastic team effort by our Bionic Learning Network, which once again underlines the importance of cooperation between universities, research institutes and leading industrial companies. We are delighted that Festo's researchers, together with the Fraunhofer IPA team, have received this prestigious award."

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