From left: Mr Killian Nair, Mr Kasheel Goberdhan a
nd Mr Akhil Gangaram’s Downhill Racing Project
was voted best project by the RobMech
Conference delegates.

Engineering inspired by Nature was the key theme of the address by UKZN alumnus Horst Weinert at the RobMech Conference.  Weinert, who obtained his MSc in Engineering from UKZN and now works in the education division of the German Engineering company, Festo, spoke on: “Festo Bionics:  Mechatronics Innovations Inspired by Nature”. 

Horst posed the questions: ‘How can we learn from Nature?  How can we be more creative?’  ‘What we do is to take natural elements and bring them into something we can work with in an industrial environment,’ he said.  ‘Bionics is about how one links technology with Nature, and also, ourselves – how we interface with machines, how we interface technology with our thoughts.  The core of everything we do is mechatronics.’ 

A mechatronic invention discussed by Horst was the Smart Bird.  ‘It has always been a dream of man to fly,’ he said.  ‘People have been trying this for so long – to get an ornithologically correct bird into the sky.  New lightweight batteries make this possible.’  Horst said that with the lightweight design, the question was how light one could go and still fly. 

Another mechatronic example discussed was the Nano Force Gripper, for which the common gecko served as inspiration.  The Nano Force Gripper gripped purely by touching, not by suction or magnetic force.  ‘The biggest trick is to get it to let go,’ said Horst. 

Horst advocated bringing people together from all kinds of research disciplines to start talking. ‘Solutions to complex engineering problems require a networked inter-disciplinary approach,’ he said.  ‘University researchers and Government need to talk to each other to create solutions for industry. 

‘Universities should look at their curriculum and ask:  What are machines in factories doing, that is not being taught in universities?  ‘Our objective is to motivate, inspire and kick start innovation,’ he said. 

Horst explained that with Bionics, all the work started with the natural model, with “something out of nature”.  Once the technical principle was extracted, a bionic adaption could occur, which in turn led to an industrial application. 

Horst said he was passionate about education.   ‘Our biggest work is to bring universities and industries together.  ‘Bring Industry into the classroom.  Then the step from classroom to industry is easy.’  

His message to UKZN was to compete in national and international bionics and mechatronics competitions, in order to benchmark what they were doing. 

Horst’s address formed part of the Sixth Robotics and Mechatronics (RobMech) Conference, hosted by UKZN’s Mechatronics and Robotics Research Group in conjunction with the South African Institution of Electrical Engineers (SAIEE) and the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society.  

Conference Chairman and School of Engineering Senior Lecturer, Dr Riaan Stopforth, said the annual Conference provided a platform to showcase and gauge the current state of advanced robotics and mechatronics in South Africa.  

The Conference was open to all industries, research institutions and hobbyists and brought together researchers, academics, application engineers, users and policy makers.   ‘I hope that the RobMech Conference has acted as a platform for industry partners to collaborate with research institutions on research topics, to allow for a boost in research, innovation and development,’ said Stopforth. 

As an added attraction, delegates at the Conference had the opportunity to view UKZN’s final year Mechanical Engineering Open Day projects.  Best project award went to the Downhill Racing Car Project group, while the best paper award went to Mr Ritesh Kanjee, Mr Asheer Bachool and Mr Johnson Carroll for their Vision-Based Adaptive Cruise Control Using Pattern Matching.