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This Robotic Octopus Tentacle Is Not Creepy At All, Nope

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.

by Samantha Cole
Mar 29 2017, 3:28pm

German industrial automation company Festo adds another creature to its freaky robotic zoo: The OctopusGripper.

Octopus tentacles are what's called a "muscular hydrostat." Your tongue is one of these, as are elephant trunks and manatee snouts. As in nature, Festo designed an octopus arm to flex and bend without a hard "bone," or metal, structure inside. Instead of water-based muscle, however, compressed air bends the robot tentacle and controls its pliability. A combination of passive and vacuum-powered suction cups provide grip.

It's seen taking hold of a series of smooth, cylindrical items, passing a rolled-up magazine and a tube to a waiting person. The OctopusGripper is one of Festo's concepts leading up to Germany's Hannover Messe 2017 trade fair next month, and doesn't currently have a firm release date, nor price. But it is still a delightfully unnerving sight to behold—sci-fi turned reality.

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Cephalopods are a longtime muse of scientists creating soft, flexible robots. The individual motor control of an octopus' eight arms, its agile clamber across the seafloor, and its ability to squeeze through small spaces make it an excellent model for biomimicry. Last year, roboticists in Livorno, Italy developed tentacles that stretch and flex using heated coils.

But even as more of these octo-bots start slithering into prototypes, there's something unsettling about the alien design of a grasping, squeezing sucker-hand. As Festo envisions OctopusGripper working in tandem with people, as part of an interchangeable set of tools at the end of the BionicCobot arm, the company goes to great lengths to reiterate that it's a friendly bot.

"Its safe structure already meets the strict criteria of a soft robotics component and guarantees a safe working relationship with people," the company states in a design overview. "Even in the event of a collision, they are harmless and do not have to be shielded from the worker like conventional factory robots."

Nope, nothing to fear from the robotic octopus. "The gripper poses no danger to the user in direct contact," a Festo spokesperson again told me in an email. No danger at all from the writhing disembodied tentacle. Do not be afraid.

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