Get your head out of the gutter. What you’re looking at is the future of soft robotics — a 3D-printed arm that imitates the complex musculature of an octopus tentacle.

The Cornell engineers behind the development recently published their findings in Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

“A long standing goal in the robotics community is the development of high degrees of freedom manipulators that mimic complex movement of biological systems such as the octopus tentacle,” the authors write. “The octopus tentacle achieves incredible dexterity through a three-dimensional arrangement of muscles in three mutually perpendicular directions (longitudinal, transverse and helical).”

Hence, the tentacle:

What you’re watching, starting at about 1:40, is a robotic arm with a complex inner system made up of four separate pressure chambers. Each chamber can be individually inflated or deflated to allow movement in a particular direction.

The top left panel shows the inner workings of the soft robotic tentacle.

The device featured earlier in the video only has two internal chambers, allowing it to move from side to side.

This little soft robot moves from side to side thanks to two internal pressure chambers.

Soft robotics is a field of research that takes inspiration from nature to build mechanical structures that aren’t as physically limited as their hard cousins. Like an octopus squeezing through a tiny hole, soft robots are poised to go new and exciting places once they shed their rigid components.

The breakthrough of this recent study is in the manufacturing. By using a 3D-printer, the engineers figured out how to make soft robotic arms that are reliable, replicable, and low-cost.

“Based on the demonstration reported here and the possibilities for improved materials, this nascent printing process for soft actuators is a promising route to sophisticated, biomimetic systems,” the authors conclude.


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