Elephant trunks are truly remarkable. They can grasp a single blade of grass and also carry nearly 600 pounds. This versatility is what prompted robotics researchers to take a deeper look at how elephant trunks work and how their natural design could be mimicked to create the next generation of bio-inspired robots.
One specific group of researchers, backed by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 innovation program, is using high-resolution motion capture technology to gain a deeper understanding of how trunks operate. Placing motion capture markers on elephant trunks allows them to capture even minute movements. The researchers also conducted CT scans and MRIs on the trunk of a deceased elephant to learn about its internal workings.
Their findings, detailed in Current Biology, explain how elephants use 20 basic movements to achieve almost infinite degrees of freedom and move their trunks at any angle. Additionally, they don’t move the entire trunk, but rather elongate and contract specific sections to achieve their desired movement. The trunks also contain “pseudo-joints” which are similar in structure to human wrists and elbows.
So what can this do for robotics? The researchers plan to use their findings to design a “soft” robotic arm that uses flexible materials rather than metallic segments connected by articulations. The prototype, which is expected to be finished next year, will be a highly versatile robotic arm that can handle a greater variety of movements and weight loads. The researchers are even going to 3D print “skin” for the arm which mimics the beneficial and hearty properties of elephant skin.
The researchers foresee that the robotic arm will be useful in factory production lines, search and rescue operations, and even in the healthcare field to lift and assist elderly patients.