Ribbed Robotic Arm Bends Like an Elephant Trunk

A female elephant in Tanzania. Elephants can reach the ripe old age of 70. (Image credit: Charles Foley, Wildlife Conservation Society)

Though it looks more like Dr. Octopus' mechanical tentacles from "Spiderman," a flexible, robotic arm recently developed by German automation company Festo was actually fashioned after an elephant's trunk.

The arm, dubbed the Bionic Handling Assistant, could safely operate around people in tight quarters in homes, schools and medical rehabilitation centers, according to its inventors.

Elephants variously use their trunks – which are actually an extended fusion of their noses and upper lips – as a strong yet bendable appendage to grab food, fight and even greet each other with "trunk shakes."

In designing the Bionic Handling Assistant, Festo took a page from nature's playbook rather than go with the metal skeletal bars and tubes that comprise conventional robotic arms. "Biomimicry," as this design and engineering aesthetic is called, draws inspiration from the biomechanical systems that the process of evolution has honed for millions of years, often resulting in startling insights over manmade artificial solutions. [Read: Future Planes Could Land Upright Like Birds and New Robot Climbs Walls Like an Ape Going Up a Tree]

Instead of the 40,000 or so muscles that allow elephants to precisely manipulate their trunks, Festo's trunk relies on the sequential inflation of tiny air bladders to determine movement and compliance.

The bladders line the interior of the Bionic Handling Assistant somewhat like inflatable vertebrae, running the length of the arm as two rows. The bladders are divided into three sections to allow for S-curve-like dexterity; by puffing up a row on one side of the trunk, for example, the trunk will bend in the opposite direction.

A so-called hand axis acts as a final fourth section just prior to Festo's three-pronged FinGripper, which caps off the trunk and provides for delicate grasping abilities.

Sensors embedded in the arm allow for fine motor control and also act as collision detectors that stop the arm in its tracks should it bump into an object such as, well, a person.

The mecha-trunk is made of a polyamide, which is a durable, flexible category of materials that includes nylon, silk and Kevlar.

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Adam Hadhazy
Adam Hadhazy is a contributing writer for Live Science and Space.com. He often writes about physics, psychology, animal behavior and story topics in general that explore the blurring line between today's science fiction and tomorrow's science fact. Adam has a Master of Arts degree from the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Boston College. When not squeezing in reruns of Star Trek, Adam likes hurling a Frisbee or dining on spicy food. You can check out more of his work at www.adamhadhazy.com.