Elephants are intriguing for many reasons, and researchers representing the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Innovation Program studied the unique abilities of elephant trunks and what they can do. The goal was to find ways to improve appendages as a robotic design. Elephant trunks provide an interesting organic alternative to arms and hands with many of the same capabilities and a lot of abilities well beyond what a human can do. A research team from the University of Geneva developed high-resolution motion-capture of the different things the elephant trunk could do, using two African elephants. What really makes the trunks so good for studying is that they are far simpler than hands and arms (there are far fewer restrictions since trunks aren’t limited by bones going in one direction or the highly refined movements of the hand), yet the movements can translate into much more complicated actions and trajectories. The article provides the scenario of lifting heavy and lightweight objects. Elephants can use simple suction to lift lightweight objects and move them. For heavier objects, elephants can use suction to adjust the object’s position until the elephant can wrap their trunk around it and lift it (similar to the way we lift heavier objects using more of our bodies, but use just our hands for light objects). Trunks do have “pseudo-joints” that section off the different areas, similar to elbows but with the ability to move in many directions instead of working like a hinge. Robotics researchers are also trying to replicate the trunk’s skin. The applications for a trunk are numerous, including search and rescues, production lines, and the medical field.
Studying the way elephants use their trunks also spot lights how they are endangered and in need of protection. From habitat loss to poaching, elephant numbers continue to decline. The research helps to provide another reason why more should be done to protect elephants. Given how unique elephants are – the largest land animal with some staggering abilities – elephants could provide a lot of other data that could be used in robotics, health, and other areas.
If you would like to learn more about the inspired translation of a biological example into something potentially incredibly useful, you can read the full article at How Could Elephant Trunks Lead to a Breakthrough in Robotics? Scientists Explain.