Scientists have spent years crafting a very special, creepy robot. One that can crawl over obstacles, swim through surf and grasp just about any object. To achieve all of these tasks, the robot needed to be unlike most other bots. It needed to be soft.

In late 2011, a team of researchers in Italy had developed soft robotic octopus arms. When I visited their lab that fall, they were just beginning to experiment with crawling bots, but the limbs on these contraptions were still standard stiff robotics. Now, the group of researchers, formerly of the Octopus Project (the research consortium, not the indie band), has submitted a mostly soft bodied creation to the U.S. Patent Office.

The octopus robot is a hallmark of the move toward more soft-bodied bots. As the researchers note in their patent application, some soft robots can move around (such as a robotic worm), and others can pick up objects (such as a robotic elephant trunk). "But the two functions have not yet been obtained together," they write. Or at least until now. Robotic octopuses "are capable of adapting to the shape of obstacles and they can manipulate fragile objects without damaging them," the researchers point out.

Like the real octopus, the robot is still most efficient in the water, where it can float and swim. And the multi-armed model confers the a distinct advantage: "during locomotion, while some arms act as support for stability, the others provide for thrusting allowing the robot to advance," the scientists point out.

Although the robotic creature currently only has six arms, the team names the common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) as their primary inspiration.

If the patent is approved, robotic octopuses might soon be crawling out of the research lab and into the world.


To learn more about octopus robots, check out Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea. Or join me Thursday, April 3, at 7pm for a discussion with octopus behavior, intelligence and robotics experts at Housing Works Bookstore in New York City.

Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen