Next Robot Inspiration: Elephants

Robots have been built with inspiration from kangaroos, turkeys, cheetahs, and octopi. Next up: elephants.

Elephant trunks are both flexible and powerful. They have a level of agility beyond that of any current machine. Now European researchers are working to figure out how exactly elephants do what they do with their trunks, with the goal of producing a new kind of robot arm. Their project won more than four million dollars from the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 research funding program.

Researcher Michel Milinkovitch happened to have a couple of elephant trunks in his fridge when he got the news. He also had access to elephants who were fairly tame and comfortable with humans. With high-powered cameras, he and his colleagues were able to identify elephants’ vocabulary of trunk movements.

It turns out that there are just about 20 of these movements. With no bones or joints, elephants are able to do an amazing range of things with their trunks using just 20 specific movements. The researchers hope that their robots will be able to do a lot of useful things with just five or ten of those actions.

Translating to machines

There is already a prototype of a trunk-inspired robot arm that grasps objects by enclosing them rather than grabbing them. This allows a firm grip without much pressure.

Pressure tends to be a major problem with robotic arms. manipulating fruit and flowers requires a different touch from auto parts. For the demands of modern factories, robots need to be able not only to use the right amount of pressure for different objects and tasks, but also to distinguish among objects and judge the appropriate level of pressure.

A lot of work still needs to be done, but elephant inspiration could solve this problem and increase the number of tasks that can be done by robots.