Hollywood movies have used giant squids and octopi to inspire underwater nightmares for decades. But Festo, a German company that makes industrial machinery, has realised that an octopus' amazing muscle-packed body and tentacles could actually be the ideal way to design and build a robot destined to work alongside humans.
Robotic arms have already joined humans on assembly lines and in factories, but they often pose a safety risk. An accidental swipe by an arm made of steel as it whips around to grab a part can result in severe injuries and even death.
But Festo's new OctopusGripper is built around a soft silicone structure that works not unlike a balloon. The pneumatic system pumps compressed air in and out of the tentacle, bending inward to wrap around an object. Two rows of suction cups, including several powered by a vacuum, then allow the robot tentacle to securely grip and hold onto even irregularly-shaped objects.
You would definitely still feel the impact if this pneumatic tentacle bumped into you while it was moving around, but since it's designed to be flexible and pliable, most of the collision should be absorbed, resulting in little to no injuries for a human co-worker. The added safety also means pneumatic robots wouldn't have to be locked away in giant safety cages, which take up a lot of valuable space on factory floors.
Additionally, Festo believes its OctopusGripper would be more universally capable than the standard pair of gripping claws that many robots utilise to grab objects. Its ability to wrap around parts, large or small, plus the added grip of the suction cups, means it could go from one task to another in a factory setting with few modifications or upgrades needed in-between.
A robot octopus is still a good source of nightmare fuel, particularly when we're staring down a future where robots are becoming more capable, and more intelligent. But you can take solace in the fact that, unlike a Terminator, this inflatable tentacle can be defeated with nothing more than a hat pin.