Festo, a German automation technology company that brought us, among other things, the smartbird robotic seagull and bionic flying penguins, has built a flying object unlike any we have seen. Despite the impressive biomimicry track record, this time its engineers decided to look for inspiration in the inanimate world of geometry. Based on a geometrical band first created by Swiss artist and inventor Paul Schatz, the SmartInversion is filled with helium and propels itself through the air by constantly turning itself inside out. By investigating this pulsating, rhythmical movement, called inversion, the company hopes to identify possible uses for it in technology.

SmartInversion - described by Festo as an “airborne geometrical band with inversion drive” - is going to look familiar to those who have played with a fairly popular origami design that can be continually twisted inwards or outwards while it shows different sides of the tetrahedra (spatial figures also known as “triangular pyramids”) it is made of. This giant piece of invertible origami is composed of selectively-linked, extremely lightweight tetrahedron-shaped compartments filled with helium. Operated by electric actuators, the tetrahedra use inversion kinetics to propel the contraption forwards.

When exploring the properties of inversion, Schatz discovered that it could be described by the principle of kinematics, a branch of classical mechanics that described movement by means of rotation and translation only. A designer himself, Schatz concluded that this third type of motion also fitted. Nearly a century later, Festo engineers seem to be proving him right.

Although currently valued mostly for its aesthetic qualities, the SmartInversion project may have a broader impact on technology. More ingenious designs are likely to be submitted to the student design contest organized by the Festo Bionic Learning Network and the German Design Council in association with the 2012 Hanover Trade Fair. The goal is to “investigate the phenomenon of inversion in greater depth”. With over 30,000 euros (US$ 39,483) at stake, the contestants are likely to show some serious creativity.

Source: Festo

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