Cephalopods are a member of Phylum Mollusca. That means they – the giant squids, the chambered nautiluses, the light-displaying cuttlefish, and the spooky smart octopuses – are in the same group as the snails in your backyard, and the oysters served at a fancy dinner table. Among the limpets, slugs, and chitons, you’ve got these cognitive, problem-solving, socially shy octopuses.
And they’re not only popular in the behavioral sciences. We can learn more from them than just watching how long it takes for them to solve various puzzles.
Octopuses have no bones. That means, among each of their eight tentacles, they have a virtually infinite range of motion. They need some highly advanced neural networking to coordinate all that muscular action. Highly advanced muscle, neural, and optical systems have made for lots of inspiration in the world of biomimetics. Let’s take a look at some robots inspired by the octopus, all from literature published this year.
By designing a robot based only on an octopus arm (or rather, a few of them), the researchers were able to build a soft robot capable of climbing items like trees and pipes. The softness and dynamic range of motion allows for diverse gripping ability.
It turns out that the shape of an octopus arm – a tapered cylinder – is better at robot things than a regular cylinder. In this paper, soft conical octopus-shaped arms were designed and compared to cylindrical ones. They found that the cone shape had a wider range of motion, more flexibility, and thus, a significantly stronger suction strength (oh yes – they added vacuum powered suction cups to their octopus arm robots as well). In a final comparison, they found the cone shaped robots were better at picking up smooth, rough, and oddly shaped items, and could even retrieve items through small openings.
The researchers here wanted a small (<1cm) soft robot that could be precisely controlled for biomedical and engineering applications. They ended up with a small, soft, three-legged octopus-like robot that responded to electromagnetic forces. By engineering a dexterous little robot to respond to a magnetic field, they ensured a reliable means of remote control.
Biomimetics is a branch of engineering that deals with bio-inspired design. Octopuses can inspire lots of robotic applications, but there are plenty of other plant and animal species that scientists are also looking to mimic and learn from.