Bionic Arms: Doc Ock Live [Video]


A Denkendorf, German company, Festo, has developed a robotic arm that is based on the dynamics of an elephant’s trunk. The bionic arms are not only flexible but reminiscent of the live arms of Doc Ock, otherwise known as Doctor Otto Octavius from the popular Spiderman movie. Like the arms in the movie, this new robotic product can learn. These arms are artificially intelligent and capable of being taught.

The bionic arms were engineered to help with predominately repetitive human jobs such as apple or grapefruit picking. There are three sizes of grippers currently in development for use with different sizes of items. Smaller grippers for those things hazelnut sized to the largest gripper in development for use with softball or grapefruit sized items. The grippers are made up of three fin-shaped digits comprised of collapsible compartments. When the ends go around the object to be picked up, they then collapse and trap the item, therefore picking it up without using excessive force. It is in this manner that the injury risk is reduced. Festo states that this FinGripper is currently being utilized on production lines of test customers.

The company wanted to address the issues of safety in using robots and bionics in the work-force. To date, the lack of smart skin for robots has been a factor in keeping humans and robots separate. The idea behind smart skin would be to sensitize bionic limbs and keep the mechanical motors from injuring people. Festo indicates that the bionic arms, regardless of their resemblance to those evil live appendages of the infamous, if unreal, Doc Ock, are composed of soft, lightweight, and compliant segments. The trunk-inspired limb, named the Bionic Handling Assistant, is controlled by pneumatically powered artificial muscles.

In addition to the artificial muscles, the unit is host to a number of resistance sensors. These sensors determine when contact is made and places limits on the extension. The design for the bionic arm is formed from 3D printed segments. They limbs can generate a number of motions from shaking hands or grasping bottles to picking apples or changing light bulbs. Otherwise, though, it wasn’t originally designed to deliver much control. It required the expertise of robotics professionals in order to train the arm to carry out even simple tasks. However, this hurdle appears to have been overcome as the company presented at the human-robot interaction conference held last week in Bielefeld, Germany.

Because the system is artificially intelligent, the company used a process known as goal babbling. This process is akin to the way a human baby might learn to grab things by both trial and error and repetitiveness. This allows both a human baby and this robot to work out how it must move their muscles in order to achieve the desired goals. The bionic robot arm remembers how its position varies when tiny changes are made to the pressure in the pneumatic tubes which control the artificial muscles. As the system learns, more internal maps are created for the arms to use for future movements.

As for now, the bionic trunk, or arm, can be manually manipulated into different positions in order for it to learn to operate the same movements with commands. It has the ability to be trained to repeat actions. Festo is not the only company with a robotic arm under development. A European team has an arm inspired by the limbs of an octopus. The difference between the two, other than the animals from which inspiration came, is that the European researchers are attempting to deliver their movements using electroactive polymers as opposed to the pneumatics that Festo has developed. In addition, Festo has the advantage of ease of recognizability as they have created a bionic arm entirely reminiscent of the live arms attached to Spiderman’s evil enemy, Doc Ock.

Editorial by Dee Mueller

New Scientist

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