Escape Artist

A one-meter-long octopus can squeeze its body through a hole just two centimeters wide. What’s more, its arms can stretch to twice their original length and can alternate between being soft and rigid, depending on the task at hand. Now, scientists are developing a robot that mimics this unique dexterity, with hopes it will help them extract samples from some of the oceans’ hardest places to reach.

The rigid robots currently used for ocean research are too clunky to navigate through small spaces, and they pose a threat to coral and other undersea structures. The new robot, under development by a research team led by Cecilia Laschi of Italy’s Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, would be a soft-bodied alternative that could reach into tiny cracks and crevices, grab objects, and bring them back to the lab for analysis. The robot could also be equipped to take close-up photos of reefs.

The researchers have successfully tested a system that mimics an octopus arm’s movements. Now, they are working to recreate the unique arrangement of muscles in those arms and to develop a system that allows all eight legs to work in unison. ❧

—Judy Wexler

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