Octopi, Robots, and Coffee

Servo motors are still the best means of controlling industrial motion, and most of the dazzling new ideas in industrial automation these days come from AI (artificial intelligence).

Here’s something new for robots, though: softness.

Robots right now move in straight lines with straight arms. That’s fine for many uses, but a European study group on surgical robotics has come up with a more flexible option.

The inspiration came from two places: research on octopi in motion and vacuum packed coffee. Octopi can stiffen their flexible arms enough to grab and kill their prey, but they retain the flexibility needed to snake their way into caves and crevices to find that prey.

Where does the coffee come in? The new octopus-like robotic arm contains balloon-like sacks of granules. When the sacks contain air along with the granules, they’re soft and flexible. When the air is removed, they stiffen up like a vacuum-packed sack of coffee. Open the sack to allow air in, as you do when you open the bag at home, and the sack is flexible again.

The prototype soft flexible arm uses coffee for the granules in the sack, actually, because coffee does that granular jamming very well.

The new surgical robots will be following a trend of using animal motions as inspiration for robotic design. It’s hard to beat the design of living creatures.

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