We’ve written about biomimicry in robotics focusing on the kangaroo, the ant, the cheetah, and more, but the winner for the most inspiring creature in robotics must be… the octopus.
Octopi have inspired a variety of soft robots by now. The completely soft and not yet useful Harvard octopus robot may be the closest homage. The Italian Octobot is all about movement, but could revolutionize robotic-assisted medical tech. A distributed-brain robotics experiment inspired by the octopus may completely change drones.
There are plenty more examples, but the newest cephalopod-inspired robot is a produce handler from Soft Robotics, Inc.
Produce handling is a challenging area. It’s hard to find human workers in this field right now. Sanitation is so important that training workers is a top priority, but there’s a lot of turnover among human workers, and it is hard for companies in this space to attract and keep workers long enough to make their training cost-effective.
How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after all, after they’ve seen Paree on their iPhones?
At the same time, automation provides challenges, too. Clearly, produce changes with the seasons, and machinery needs to be able to cope with those changes. Truth is, it’s hard for machines to cope with things like the differences in shape and size of one tree’s worth of apples, let alone a shift from apples to plums to strawberries. It’s hard for machines to cope with the tops and bottoms of apples, for that matter. Machines do best with objects that are consistent in shape and size.
Machines are also not known for the their gentleness. It can be hard for people to work with delicate fruits without damaging the product. For machines, it is usually impossible. Add the damage issue to the need for flexibility and adaptability, and it usually isn’t cost-effective to invest in automation to handle produce.
For some time agriculture tried coping with these realities by working toward creating fruit that was hard and uniform. People noticed the lack of flavor — and those tomatoes still didn’t meet the needs of the machinery. So it was very exciting when Soft Robotics created a machine that can successfully pick and pack tomatoes.
It’s all thanks to the octopus.