Robot Octopus - this robotic limb is straight out of scifi, mimicking the movements of an elephant’s trunk or Doc Octopus’ bionic arms (depending on whether you prefer cute or super villain). Powered by pneumatics and made from soft materials, it is designed to safely coinhabit a human’s workspace, but there is something vaguely creepy about it.
I am in Jochen Steil’s lab, grasping a segmented, whiplashing tentacle that resists and tries to push me away. It feels strangely alive, as though I am trying to throttle a giant alien maggot. In fact, I am training a bionic elephant’s trunk to do real-world jobs like picking apples or replacing light bulbs – something non-experts haven’t been able to do until now.
Designed to bring the dexterity of an elephant’s trunk to industrial robots, the appendage I am wrestling was launched by German engineering firm Festo as a proof-of-concept in 2010. The design showed that a trunk formed of 3D-printed segments can be controlled by an array of pneumatic artificial muscles.