Piezoceramic bending transducers.

It scampers across the floor, raising and lowering its six little legs as its eyes inspect the world around it. Two thin antennae project from its head; a gold-coloured pattern runs along its black body. Current flows through two tiny wires as though through an open nervous system. This small, artificial ant looks intelligent. You almost expect it to smile. This bionic insect is controlled by algorithms. Stereo cameras are concealed in its head, sensors in its belly, antennae in its interior. Piezoceramic bending transducers (more on these later) move its legs; three-dimensional conductors are attached to its body. All this allows the ant to see, walk, pull and grab. It can call for help and communicate with others of its kind.

Snowball effect.

The ‘BionicAnt’ functions autonomously. It can make decisions and engage in co-operative behaviour. Thanks to the latest technologies and at just under 14 centimetres long, this tiny robot, which imitates its natural model, lends itself to deployment in the tightest of spaces. Created by the German company, Festo, the BionicAnt is a particularly vivid illustration of the revolutionary times in which we live. Never before have so many different fields of research intersected, have innovations complemented one another so fruitfully, or have globally networked companies so quickly expedited their projects. The astonishing result we see today is a veritable snowball effect in the rate of technologisation.

The power of algorithms.

It has long since taken hold in the field of mobility and will be shaping it in the future. The nomenclature for this new era: robotics, sensor technology, automation. Connectivity, 3-D printing and lightweight construction. Kinematics, adaptivity, miniaturisation, integration of multiple functions in a tiny component. Add to that the power of algorithms. Artificial intelligence. Self-learning systems. Confused? Many of us are. The artificial ant is one of those projects that provides concrete illustrations of these concepts that can help us understand them. It was developed by the Bionic Learning Network, a research partnership under the direction of the company Festo in Esslingen, Germany. This company, with its 18,800 employees, is one of the world’s leading specialists in automation technology and a long-standing Mercedes‑Benz Group AG supplier.

In putting together its bionics team, Festo has provided itself with a very special think tank where engineers and designers, biologists and software specialists develop the “concepts of the future”. The team takes inspiration from a model that is millions of years old: nature itself. Sebastian Schrof, who helped develop the ant for Festo, takes the bionic insect and puts it back into its plastic case. An industrial designer who specialises in robotics, he has dubbed this specimen “Schmucchini”. It is one of twelve artificial ants which demonstrate what they can do at trade exhibitions and technology shows all over the world. And the spectators are usually wide-eyed in amazement. Not only do the BionicAnts copy the delicately intricate anatomy of real ants, by means of algorithms, they also imitate ants’ cognitive functions.

Artificial creatures.

Once on its legs, each ant first makes a map of its surroundings and communicates it to the other ants. The robots soon “know” where they themselves and all of their companions are. If they then wish to move an object, they radio their colleagues. The other ants quickly come crawling over and pitch in. Their knowledge has been stored: they are stronger in a swarm, and with joined forces they haul the lump away. Without the help of anyone sitting at a remote control unit. Nadine Kärcher, a member of Festo’s bionics team for the last six years, develops software for the artificial creatures. Together with IT experts at the University of Ulm, she also wrote, among other things, the algorithms needed to transform the ants into acting entities: complex equations based on the most minutely defined steps. Nadine Kärcher explains how we should imagine the process. “We teach the ant that, when this occurs, you do that. If your sensors detect something on the right, then you go left to avoid it. And if your battery is empty, you go to the charging station.”

A multi-talent.

Algorithms are virtually endless strings of numbers that act upon the processors. The processor – a sort of brain that processes and distributes signals and controls the legs and and grippers – is located in the ant’s posterior. Its most mind-boggling ability: it simulates a collective “swarm intelligence”. “Individual systems coordinate with one another,” explains Nadine Kärcher. “Collectively, they take on tasks that a system would not be able to manage by itself.” To move the insect’s legs, Festo uses something known as piezo technology. If a voltage is applied to a special crystal, the crystal reacts mechanically. The surface changes its shape, stretches or contracts. Conversely, the mechanical tension induces the piezo crystal to produce a voltage.

An extremely effective reciprocal effect. And that is precisely how the six ant legs are made to move: by the use of piezoceramic bending transducers. The ant also makes use of the ‘moulded interconnected device’ (MID) method, which is used to attach visible three-dimensional conductors to the surfaces of the 3-D-printed components. The result is a contoured component that performs mechanical and electronic functions simultaneously. A multi-talent. Such new technologies inspire the imagination. At Festo, even an artificial kangaroo has been seen hopping through the rooms. The bionic engineers had observed something amazing in real kangaroos.

Full jumping power.

Much like a rubber ball, the animal recaptures energy with each landing and uses it for the next hop. It shifts its centre of gravity to jump in different parabolas. Elias Knubben, who has headed the bionics team at Festo since 2012, explains: “We took a close look at what was happening: the linear axes and impulses that have to be set in motion and braked. And we learned how to handle energy in an extremely economical way. With each hop, the kangaroo regains 80 per cent of its energy. You need apply only another 20 per cent to arrive at full jumping power again. An ingenious principle.”

To learn from nature.

The bionic engineers at Festo have also emulated the tongue of a chameleon, a project that ultimately produced the ‘FlexShapeGripper’. Like a real chameleon’s tongue, this gripper extends over objects to snatch them – with the aid of an elastic silicone cap. They have copied the tentacles of an octopus. The artificial octopus arm is flexible and is operated pneumatically. It wraps around objects, and with its suction cups it can create a vacuum and grip smooth surfaces, even panes of glass. Elephant trunks and fish fins have also served as blueprints for extremely capable gripping arms. These robots can pick up tomatoes, apples, even raw eggs. “With each new project, we learn an enormous amount from nature,” says Elias Knubben, “and much of that has found its way into production.” Basic research is, after all, no end in itself.

Information technology and biology.

The aim is to use new materials, test the use of sensors in a new context, or to ask: What happens when information technology and biology meet? The ultimate goal: to identify the possibilities of the dawning age. And to exploit them. It is in the production process that robotics can most effectively expedite the automobility of tomorrow. The robots of the future could leave their cages and work alongside people. They are able to apply fine motor skills to their movements. Their sensors enable them to determine when they need to stop. Prototypes such as the ‘BionicCobot’ dispense with steel and electric motors entirely. Compressed air moves their joints, the axes in their elbows, lower arms and wrists. They can exert a strong grip or gingerly lift something up, firmly press something shut or even tap an employee on the shoulder. As if they wanted to say, take this, we still have to insert this screw. At Mercedes‑Benz Group AG, such developments are being followed with keen interest.

Almost miraculous.

Development will proceed in the direction of smart systems that can provide people with ever greater assistance. And with the further development of artificial intelligence, even more extensive networking and a continuous flow of exchanged data, many of the innovations will end up being a part of our everyday lives. The vision of automated driving and a resulting reduction in accident statistics is drawing ever closer thanks to sophisticated sensor technology. Intelligent parking searches – a necessity in major cities especially – could likewise be organised with considerably more efficiency. But nature is the measure of things in a higher sense as well. Elias Knubben of Festo talks of neuronal networks and swarm intelligence. “That would be a further technological leap.”

And his most recent bionic project shows quite vividly what is in store for us. This morning the team leader is standing in the glass entrance hall of the company headquarters – releasing flying butterflies. Nimbly they flutter about, playfully, nearly poetically. There is something almost miraculous about the spectacle. It is like a feather-light example of the smart mobility of tomorrow. The ‘eMotionButterly’ is a bionic butterfly weighing a mere 27 grams and with a command of the beating wing principle. Its wings create thrust and lift at the same time. Its minimalistic body is the product of a 3-D printer; a wafer-thin film is stretched over a carbon frame.

Masterful evasive manoeuvres.

Motors and electronics are so minimally present that they are barely detectable from a metre away. The bionic butterfly requires very little energy to stay airborne. Ten infrared cameras in the room locate every single insect, take 160 pictures and billions of pixels per second. They track minute markers mounted on the butterflies. The butterflies do not collide, they execute masterful evasive manoeuvres, abruptly change their direction in a swarm. And they finish by gently landing on the bionic engineer’s outstretched hand.

There are many paths leading to the digital world of tomorrow.

There are many paths leading to the digital world of tomorrow. Things are moving at a fast pace, and the juncture of new technologies is revealing entirely new prospects. Mercedes-Benz opened a development centre in Silicon Valley 20 years ago. Today, connectivity and autonomous driving, shared services and electromobility are the major mobility trends. And artificial intelligence is having an ever greater impact on our everyday lives. Mercedes-Benz is at work in many fields, not only to identify visionary concepts, but also to generate and further them. Designers have conceived a bionic car with a boxfish shape and sensational drag coefficients.

The car is at the centre of an array of new projects.

The car is at the centre of an array of new projects that use neuronal networks and interact with the environment. The F 015 research vehicle illustrates a number of revolutionary concepts. It recognises its surroundings and co-operates with them. It also offers innovative approaches in sensor technology, lightweight construction and connectivity. Other developers at Mercedes‑Benz Group AG are working on the networked vehicle fleet and intelligent car sharing. Employees in Sindelfingen are testing robots for the factory of tomorrow, while Daimler Trucks is testing the use of digitally linked trucks in convoy travel, referred to as “platooning”. One source of inspiration is birds flying in formation. The objective: fuel efficiency.

More Information.

The spectacular utopias of Chief Design Officer Gorden Wagener.