Elephant Trunks Could Inspire New Robotic Arms

Researchers wanted to see how elephants use force to grab objects of varying shapes and sizes.

Researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Georgia Institute of Technology are studying how elephants use their trunks to lift small objects. The team hopes learn how an elephant trunk could inspire new robots with flexible hands or grippers.

Elephant trunks are boneless organs, similar to an octopus arm and the human tongue. They form kinks or joints with their trunks to grab small pieces of food.

The researchers wanted to see how elephants apply force with their trunks to grab objects of various shapes and sizes. And they do a lot of grabbing, consuming nearly 450 pounds of food per day. The animals graze for up to 18 hours, and eat, on average, 180 grams of food per minute. That is equivalent to two corn cobs per minute.

The team partnered with Zoo Atlanta, which videotaped 35-year-old Kelly as she grabbed different types of food. Using a force sensor and a camera, they were able to measure the force Kelly applied to the food, as well as the shape of her trunk when she grabbed it.

In order for robotic arms and grippers to work in the real world, the researchers say that "they will have to deal with multiple objects in cluttered and unpredictable environments."

The team could be on to something. As we've seen in previous applications, such as theĀ OctopusGripper from Festo, bio-inspired designs have a future in the mechanical world.

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