Elephant Trunks as a Model for Robots

Elephant Trunks as a Model for Robots

New research shows that using elephant trunks as a model for robots, engineer-designers may soon create machines capable of doing things that no current robot can do. For example, the elephant trunk has 40,000 muscles that work together to allow the animal to pick up a single leaf or lift and move a large log easily.

Researchers used motion capture technology similar to that used to create movies where the movement of animated characters is mapped to the motions of real actors in a studio. Studying elephant trunk movements by this method allowed the researchers to carefully examine the myriad ways an elephant uses its trunk.

The elephant’s trunk has an infinite number of degrees of freedom. We can see a similar property in a limited way in the human tongue. Like the elephant’s trunk, our tongues have no bones, and some of us can curl, twist, and contort them in various ways. The ability to speak requires complex tongue movements.

Using elephant trunks as a model for robots is a real challenge to engineers. Designing a robotic arm with complex movements and strength is an important goal. Looking at the elephant’s trunk design, it does not seem possible that this could be a product of chance. Yet, the elephant’s survival is only possible because of this highly complex appendage.

Some animals have tongues that can do interesting things, but the elephant trunk is unique. By using elephant trunks as a model for robots, we can gain some essential insight into making a robot that can do the things we can do with our hands. It becomes clear that all of nature shows God’s handiwork and teaches us important lessons.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

References: Scientific American, December 2021 (page 18), and the journal Current Biology.