July 9, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

Elephant Trunk Inspires Robot Arm

A German company took inspiration from the soft, supple, yet powerful trunk of the elephant and built an arm to imitate it.  Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, a company engaged in “research of practical utility,” rhapsodized on the abilities of the elephant trunk:

It is long, gray, soft and – endowed with no fewer than 40,000 muscles – extremely agile.  An elephant uses its trunk to grasp objects and for drinking.  With their trunks, the pachyderms can tear down trees and pull heavy loads, and yet are also capable of performing extremely delicate manipulations.  Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA in Stuttgart have used the elephant’s trunk as a design model.  “Its suppleness and agility gave us the idea for a bionic robot arm, ISELLA,” recounts Harald Staab, the IPA researcher who invented and developed the technology.

The ISELLA arm uses a new kind of servo motor system with pairs of motors, each with a high transmission, attached to cords that twist in a helical shape when moving.  The motors are paired to prevent each other from going into wild, uncontrolled movements.  “What we can learn from elephants,” the title said.  The answer is low-cost, flexible prosthetic devices.  The article was echoed on Science Daily.
    The article did not mention if the arm can pull down trees, drink, or pick up peanuts out of a child’s hand.

… or reproduce itself.  This arm only has 10 of the paired servo motors, not 40,000.  Oh well, progress takes time.  The press release mentioned nothing about how evolution could have achieved the remarkable elephant’s trunk.  That in itself was inspiring.

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