In brief: Manipulating objects is one of the most difficult challenges in the field of robotics, so researchers have built an advanced soft robotic arm that closely resembles the tentacle of an octopus in both form and function. The dexterity achieved is a noteworthy step forward in the field of soft robotics.
The robotics world is full of fascinating ideas that could make the world we live in a lot more convenient, even as it raises valid concerns about the potential negative impact on those who stand to be replaced by robots soon.
In the meantime, researchers are exploring various ways to make robotic arms better by taking inspiration from nature. For example, a Harvard team has managed to create a nifty one that mimics an octopus's tentacles and their ability to open jars, as well as their powerful grip that is used for ensnaring prey and fending off attackers.
The researchers at Harvard's John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Beihang University in China have built a soft robotic arm called Festo Tentacle Gripper. It is a simplified version of the real deal, but similarly capable of handling a variety of objects of different sizes and shapes with relative ease.
The arm has a tapered design and two rows of suction cups that help it get a hold of an object regardless of its texture. Until now, attempts have been limited to mimicking suction capabilities. However, this one is also able to bend inward, just like the arm of an octopus.
Researchers wanted to combine both traits in a single device to achieve the same dexterity that previously required multiple arms, and to that end, they use two valves, one for applying pressure for bending the arm, and one to engage the vacuum-based biomimetic suckers. That way, the Festo Tentacle Gripper can attach, wrap around, and release various objects, as well as squeeze into small spaces to retrieve something.
Zhexin Xie, one of the PhD students involved in the creation of the Festo Tentacle Gripper, explained that tests using coffee mugs, test tubes, eggs, and a live crab among other things, have been successful. Overall, this is a significant step forward for soft robotics, which is what NASA wants to use to explore other worlds.