Tiny Robotic Tentacle Can Pick Up Ants Without Crushing Them

By Maddie Stone on at

If you discover ants in your house, your first reaction is probably to stomp em’ fast. But maybe you’re averse to violence and would prefer to peacefully relocate your six-legged housemates. Now, there’s a robotic arm capable of doing just that.

To be fair, we aren’t going to see a commercial version of this tiny robotic tentacle anytime soon—the technology, detailed this week in Nature Scientific Reports, is still very much in the R&D phase. And the engineers behind it have other purposes in mind that are (arguably) more important than pacifistic pest control. Carefully manipulating blood vessels or embryos during surgery, for instance.

Conventional robots are built from rigid parts, but recently, scientists and engineers have begun to take a page out of nature’s book, developing rubbery robotic limbs that twist and bend like an octopus tentacle, elephant trunk or plant tendril. To make these limbs move, compressed air is forced in and out of many tiny, pneumatic channels. Because of their softer touch, scientists believe tentacle arms could prove very useful is in high-precision work with tiny, biological structures.

Tiny Robotic Tentacle Can Pick Up Ants Without Crushing Them

Scaling soft robots down has proven challenging before, but the researchers behind the new study seem to have made significant progress. The new tentacles, made by dipping thin wires into liquid silicon rubber and removing the wire casts once the fluid solidified, are five to eight millimetres long and roughly the thickness of a human hair. They can grab and lift tiny objects, including ant waists and fish eggs, without inflicting damage.

I love that we’re starting to see more and more robots that depart from the traditional tin man model. The natural world offers so many diverse body templates, it’d be a shame if we only took inspiration from one. Especially since humanoid robots are basically drunk children.

[read the full scientific paper at Nature Scientific Reports]

Images: Paek et al. 2015