Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/06/08/octopi_robots/
Octopuses inspire next-generation robots
Researchers at the University of California have started work on a new kind of robot that will be able to walk without a rigid skeleton. This so-called soft robot would be able to go places its more rigid counterparts cannot, squeezing into small spaces that would otherwise be inaccessible.
The researchers hope that once completed, the robots will be useful to search and rescue teams in the aftermath of earthquakes, car accidents or during fires.
Robert Full, professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley said: "The wonderful thing about soft robotics is that it's infinitely adaptable, unlike the few degrees of freedom of rigid robots."
The team was inspired by the discovery that two species of octopus can effectively walk along the sea floor using two of their arms, almost like a tank moves along tracks, according to the BBC World Service's Science in Action programme. Every other example of bipedal locomotion involves the support of a rigid skeleton, but the octopuses move along supported purely by the strength of their muscles (and the sea, obviously).
The researchers think the walking technique has evolved to allow the octopuses to back away from a predator while maintaining their camouflage.
The octopuses walk along by forming functional feet with their arms. The animals roll backwards along the suckers on one flattened arm, before switching to the other arm and repeating the process. Take a peak at a clip of an octopus in motion here.
To mimic this process, the research team has built a prototype section of a robotic arm, effectively an artificial muscle. The "muscle" is really a tube with a spring inside, the BBC explains. It can bend in all directions, can be compressed and stretched.
By linking many of these tubes together, the researchers think they could create an artificial octopus arm, paving the way for robots that move in a whole new way. ®
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