I will admit that I have a great bias toward highly intelligent animals. I find their ability to communicate to each other and to solve complex problems marvelous, and I swell with pride when I see articles detailing the intellectual feats of other creatures.
Besides many species of whale, dolphin, or primate, I think I admire the elephant the most. I find their deep connection to family touching and their intelligence fascinating, but what I love most about them is their trunks.
This unique appendage is extremely dexterous, acting much like the human hand. While human arms have bone inside the trunk is completely muscle, with layers running in rings along the trunks length and layers running perpendicular to the rings. This makes the trunk immensely strong, able to crush human ribs or pick up large branches. At the end of all this muscle are two triangular shaped protrusions, which are as dexterous and controlled as the body of the trunk is powerful. These protrusions act like fingers and can pick up a single strand of hay.
I always thought that the design of the elephant trunk would be marvelous for prosthetic arms, it may not exactly look like a human arm but is has the same, or arguably more dexterity, and for sure more strength. Instead of battery powered electronics and heavy motors, one could use light green plastics, compressed air and a light flexible frame to make the prosthetic trunk.
While I think this idea is pretty great if I say so myself, somebody beat me to it. Festo, a robotics and electronics company based in Switzerland works on developing robots that act like or mimic animals. Along with a floating and flying penguin, they have also developed a robotic elephant trunk. Theirs is much bigger than a prosthetic arm would be, but they have designed it to replace the heavy, costly, and dangerous Assembly robots in factories. This marvelous robot has eleven degrees of freedom, which allow it to perform tasks normal assembly robots could never do. They use compressed air to move the trunk and have developed a design for the end of the trunk as well. The gripper has three rubber triangles. When they come into contact with an object - due to their internal folding pattern – they curve around the object, allowing them to hold the object without applying a lot of crushing force.
Festo's website is truly inspiring to anyone interested in robotics, or even a lay person wanting to see something cool. I actually hope to work with or at Festo someday, and it's products and ideas like this that make me giddy with excitement. Festo actually has a few videos of the trunk in action.
Wow! I hope you enjoyed those as much as I did. I love robotics that are low energy and highly effective, and this does not only both but also is inspired by nature. It's a win win!