Researchers from Switzerland’s EPFL research institute and the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology have developed an innovative and human-friendly robotic arm that takes inspiration from the flexible and gentle movements of elephant trunks and octopus tentacles. This prototype robotic arm incorporates a unique “trimmed helicoid” structure and a series of electric actuators arranged end-to-end with flexible connectors.

The arm’s outer structure consists of polymer elements arranged in a springy spiral, allowing it to be externally soft and pliable, preventing harm to humans it may encounter. Simultaneously, it maintains firmness to protect its internal components, including actuators and electronics, from impacts.

Compared to traditional robotic arms with fixed joints at the shoulder, elbow, and wrist, this arm is exceptionally flexible, offering a broader range of motion. As a result, it is well-suited for various tasks, such as fruit-picking, agricultural work, eldercare, and assembly line operations.

EPFL’s Prof. Josie Hughes, the project leader, highlighted the arm’s innovative architecture and distributed actuation, which involves placing multiple actuators throughout the structure, providing precise control, extensive motion capabilities, and inherent safety for human interaction. The researchers believe that this technology can address the need for more flexible and safe robotic systems in a variety of applications.

The robotic arm’s potential has led to its commercialization through a spinoff company called Helix Robotics. Their research, detailing the arm’s development and capabilities, was published in the journal NPJ Robotics, showcasing the promising future of this soft and adaptable robotic arm in various industries.

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