Forget submarines, send in a robotic octopus instead

Explore where no man has gone before, with tentacles? Now building the world’s first robotic octopus, and the world’s first soft-bodied robot, Israeli “octopus” scientists have joined a seven group international team to help marine scientists explore nooks and crannies …

Explore where no man has gone before, with tentacles?

Now building the world’s first robotic octopus, and the world’s first soft-bodied robot, Israeli “octopus” scientists have joined a seven group international team to help marine scientists explore nooks and crannies on the ocean floor, like an octopus would.

Instead of dropping down clunky metallic submarines to the seafloor, which offer little in the way of precision, scientists are working on a soft-bodied robotic device that can gingerly walk over delicate objects, making sure not to damage coral reefs and pristine marine environments.

The initial goal of the octopus robot is to monitor the effects of global warming on the sea. But Prof. Binyamin Hochner, from the Octopus Group, Life Sciences Institute at Hebrew University of Jerusalem imagines that when complete, the robot will also have applications in medicine – inside the body – and in search and rescue missions after devastating natural disasters, like the recent earthquake in Italy.

Funded by the European Agency’s Framework 7, the international team – which includes scientists from the UK, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey, and Greece — has been challenged to create the world’s first soft-bodied robot sometime within the next four years.

A soft-bodied robot isn’t as easy to build as some might think, but it offers many advantages over the stiff robotic arms now being used, says Hochner.

“We just started on the new project with the European team, but now the idea is to build a robot which is an entire octopus for underwater exploring,” Hochner, who is working with Prof. Tamar Flash from the Weizmann Institute in Israel, tells ISRAEL21c.

Israelis to move artificial muscles

The Israeli role in the project is in developing the mechanics of octopus locomotion. “We are collaborating with groups who are supposed to build the material and from our side, we are analyzing octopus behavior and motor control strategies for the arm, which have multiple degrees of freedom,” says Hochner, speaking from his Octopus Lab in Jerusalem.

“The other groups are developing special materials to imitate the [octopus] muscle, and in my opinion this is the most difficult part of the project,” he says.

When complete, the scientists are expected to have built a life-like octopus robot, with a head, body and eight tentacles, which can each bend in 360 degrees. Elongating and stretching like the real ones do, the scientists’ robotic tentacles will be able to stretch out and become thin in order to hold small objects in small spaces.

The researchers intend to mimic the exact same structure and properties of a real octopus.

There is something called intelligent design, where nature knows what’s best, explains Hochner. “You shouldn’t do only the arm, and should take advantage of other parts of the biological system [of the octopus], which in nature also adapts to certain goals,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

Sucker systems, a nervous system, the sensory system and even the structure of the skin, will be copied, he says. “It’s combining everything in the structure.

“We are replicating the muscular structure of an octopus by making a robot with no rigid structure – and that is completely new to robotics,” said one of Hochner’s partners from Italy.

An agile invertebrate, with the intelligence of a rat

Octopus tentacles are made up of four longitudinal muscles, and the scientists plan on replicating them with a soft silicone rubber fitted with an electroactive polymer called a dielectric elastomer.

When they apply an electric field to this polymer, it will squeeze the silicon making it shorter, and thereby mimic the contraction process in octopus and other soft-bodied marine animals.

The Israeli group has been working on research and feasibility studies towards a robotic octopus for over 15 years already. In the past, both the US Navy and the US Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA), funded Hochner to investigate the range, possibilities and limitations on flexible octopus arms.

A study on how the international team plan to carry out the work has been published in the journal Biomimetics and Bioinspiration.

So far, scientists have only been able to develop a snake-like tentacle that inflates with compressed air. Due to buoyancy issues, such a device would never work underwater.

Will the new team be able to make agile animal robots, fit for exploring the sea floor?

Hochner, who loves octopuses, hopes so. “It’s a very fascinating animal,” he says. “When we started to work on its motor control, we got very interested in its intelligence. It’s considered to be the most intelligent invertebrate, and can learn and do things higher vertebrates could do,” says Hochner, who compares the invertebrate’s intelligence levels to a rat or mouse.

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About Karin Kloosterman

Karin Kloosterman lives in Jaffa, Israel. She is a journalist, writer and blogger who focuses on the environment and clean technology from Israel and the Middle East. Published in hundreds of newspapers around the world, Karin also writes for the Huffington Post and Green Prophet.