Elephant-like robo arm moves intelligently

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

robo elephant trunk
The robotic elephant arm uses a variety of sensors to make intelligent decisions about its movements, learning and evolving like a child.

Robots can be bulky, heavy, and limited in their range of motion, but now an elephant’s trunk has inspired researchers to create a whole new type of movement. Taking a note or two from the large mammals, a company in Germany has designed the Bionic Handling Assistant, a 3D-printed, light-weight, and extremely flexible robotic arm with an impressive range of motion.

The trunk-like robot features a long arm, a wrist, and three very flexible fingers. When air is pumped into the invention, it extends very much like an accordian would and allows the mechanical limb to control what direction to move in. Though it weighs about 4 tiny pounds, it’s strong enough to carry more than 1,100 pounds! Surprisingly, the trunk isn’t pre-programmed with a set of motions to reach for heavy objects, and has to actually learn all on its own.

In order to do this, the Bionic Handling Assistant uses cameras and sensors to detect the location of an object. It then uses a process the researchers call “goal babbling,” which they compare to babies first learning how to move. Essentially, the robot will reach for an object and miss, but then correct the miscalculated movement over time in a series of trials and errors. It will continue evolving until it learns an impressive reaching range (good thing elephants never forget!).

Researchers are still trying to figure out what industry will benefit the most from their product, but they are sure the device will be useful for both large companies and small ones.

Images courtesy of Festo.