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How an Elephant Trunk is Extending Soft Robotics a Helping Hand

Updated: Jun 17

Elephant trunk and the bionic handling assistant robot arm holding an apple


Imagine a world where a soft and powerful elephant trunk is helping to create a new range of safer robots.

Inspired by the anatomy of an elephant's trunk, a breakthrough in soft robotics is now here.

This technology blends nature's genius with advanced engineering. It also offers us new possibilities for human-robot interactions.

In this blog, we're on a journey through the elephant's trunk and into the next generation of robots.

Let's dive in, and find out what makes elephant trunks such a special and much-adored animal body part.

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How Many Muscles in an Elephant Trunk?

Made up of approximately 40,000 muscles the elephant’s trunk is a remarkable limb.

When we compare this to the 600 muscles of the human body it reveals to us how impressive the elephant's trunk is.

African elephant curls trunk up against a blue sky

What is an Elephant Trunk Used For?

Elephants can use their trunks for a variety of tasks. One example includes feeding.

Curled African elephant trunk holding vegetation

Their trunk helps them to reach the fruits & leaves of tall trees and to uproot nutritious grasses.

African elephant submerged in a lake using trunk as a snorkel

As water-loving animals their long noses act as the perfect snorkels.

Herd of African elephants drinking at a watering hole

Their trunks are also used for drinking. Elephants can suck up and store up to 12 litres of water in their trunks.

Once full, they direct their trunks to their mouths for a thirst-quenching drink.

As social animals, elephants use their trunks to greet one another. Mothers use theirs to show signs of affection and comfort younger members of the herd.

African elephant trunk curled over its right tusk

How Long is an Elephant Trunk?

The trunks of African elephants tend to be longer than that of Asian elephants. But on average, the trunk of an adult elephant is about 2 to 3 metres long.

What is an Elephant's Trunk?

While this may sound like an easy question the answer is more complex than many expect.

Elephant trunks are essentially a combination of an extended nose and a mouth! But what exactly does that mean?

On closer inspection, we see that an elephant's trunk is a fusion of its long nose and top lip.

This long muscular tubular proboscis has two nostrils running through its entire length. This gives elephants a brilliant sense of 'directional smell'.

With this brilliant sense of smell, elephants can pick up a variety of scents from long distances. Including the scent of water!

Can an Elephant Survive Without Its Trunk?

Survival without a trunk would be challenging for a big mammal like an elephant.

Elephant trunks are vital for feeding and taking in water. Without its trunk, an elephant would struggle to nourish itself.

African elephant spraying itself with a big plume of dust

Elephant trunks are also crucial for taking dust baths.

These dust baths help elephants to regulate their body temperature. It also protects their skin from harmful UV rays.

Young African elephant with damaged trunk feeding from a milk bottle held by a ranger

Can an Elephant Trunk Grow Back?

Many creatures of the animal kingdom can regenerate lost limbs. But an elephant cannot regrow its trunk.

This makes protecting the trunk essential to an elephant’s survival.

This is particularly important when it comes to avoiding ambush predators like crocodiles.

Asian elephant lifting a fallen tree

How Strong is an Elephant Trunk?

Elephant trunks are very strong. They can lift over 300 kilograms making light work of heavy objects and fallen trees.

Their trunks are also capable of performing the most delicate of tasks. Strong enough to lift a mighty tree yet precise enough to pick up a blade of grass.

It's a wonderful balance of power and finesse.

So, what exactly are we learning from these limber limbs? And how might they help us in a future world filled with soft robots?

Bionic handling assistant robot arm holding an orange

How Are Elephants Influencing Soft Robot Designs?

Introducing the 'Bionic Handling Assistant'

The Bionic Learning Network is an international research network of academics and professionals.

They explore how humans can use nature to solve everyday automation challenges.

Inspired by the elephant's trunk the team set out to reduce the dangers of hazardous robots.

But they also needed their creation to be as strong and flexible as regular robots.

Bionic handling assistant robot arm in a display case

The team wanted to imitate the softness of an elephant's trunk in their arm.

To help them achieve this they decided to use a lightweight polyamide plastic.

Instead of a solid mass of chambers, it contains many hollow chambers stacked one on top of another.

This design made it far less likely for their robot arm to cause serious injury.

Thus the 'Bionic Handling Assistant' was born.

Close up of bionic handling assistant robot arm holder

A robotic arm inspired by the elephant’s trunk. One that's flexible, lightweight, and can manipulate objects with a delicate touch.

To make their robot even better the engineering team made it work, using air! Compressed air to be precise.

How Does the 'Bionic Handling Assistant' Work?

The 'Bionic Handling Assistant' works through a series of integrated valves.

A central controller sends compressed air into the hollow chambers of the arm.

You can imagine rows upon rows of tiny empty balloons inside the arm.

Cut out showing valves and balloons inside the bionic handling assistant robot arm

The valves inflate and deflate these balloons with differing amounts of air. It's in this way that the arm moves around.

When the valves inflate the balloons on one side of the arm, it pushes the arm in the opposite direction.

But this is only one way it mimics the elephant's trunk.

At the tip of the arm, the team installed three fingers. The fingers are made from a soft material and can mould around many objects. Even one that's fragile.

With these three fingers, the Bionic Handling Assistant can delicately take hold of an egg and even pick up a blade of grass - just like a real elephant.

What Does the Future Hold for Soft Robots?

The future of soft robots is full of great potential. As this tech advances, we can expect more seamless integrations in everyday life.

The 'Bionic Handling Assistant' is the tip of the iceberg.

Bionic handling assistant robot arm handing an an apple to an elephant

Since its creation, the 'Bionic Handling Assistant' has inspired many other flexible robots. This has led to an explosion of innovation in soft robotics.

As we explore the uses of soft robots, the future appears promising.

But the question is, are we in for a delightful boon or a dystopian bust?

Whatever the future holds we can be sure of one thing. With Mother Nature's inspiration, the possibilities are endless.

Do you love reading about nature-inspired stories?

Consider checking out '30 Animals That Made Us Smarter'.

Follow the link to order your copy now! Available in print and Kindle e-book formats.


What are Some Lesser-Known Facts About Elephants Trunks?

One lesser-known fact about elephant trunks is their seismic communication abilities.

Elephants can detect vibrations through the ground with their trunks.

This ability helps them communicate over long distances. It also helps them find water by detecting the rumble of distant rainstorms.

Another fact is how you can tell elephant species apart by looking at the tips of their trunks.

The trunks of Asian elephants have one finger-like projection and African elephants have two.

Why is an Elephant's Trunk Very Special?

The elephant's trunk is special because it combines several functions. These functions are spread across many body parts in other animals.

How Did the Elephant Get Its Trunk?

The evolution of the elephant’s trunk is a mystery of great scientific intrigue.

A popular myth about elephants is that their trunks evolved as a type of snorkel millions of years ago. The truth is that early elephant ancestors, called proboscideans, didn't have a proboscis. At least not in the way we may imagine them to.

Rather, the trunk is likely a result of the selective pressure of feeding habits.

A 2023 study revealed that an ancient elephant-like mammal may hold the missing link. These mammals are called longirostrine elephantiforms.

Led by Dr. Chunxiao Li, the study explored how the feeding behaviour of these extinct animals. The study suggests the need to access food in more open environments led to a coiling grasping trunk.

They needed help accessing the out-of-reach food their bigger bodies demanded.

As a result, their extended nose adapted into the versatile, muscular trunk we see today.

What is Soft Robotics?

Soft robotics is a tech field that aims to copy the structure and movement of living organisms.

These special robots can respond to their environment by deforming and changing shape.

This design approach aims to provide safer interactions between humans and robots. One of these designs is the 'Bionic Handling Assistant'.

What is the Difference Between Hard Robots and Soft Robots?

Hard robots involve the use of hard, rigid materials. They're most useful for a task that requires high strength and precision.

Soft robots use flexible materials that mimic the natural flexibility of biological organisms. This allows for safer, more adaptable robot designs.

What is a Robotic Arm?

A robotic arm is a mechanical arm that functions like a human arm. Robotic arms are programmable and can perform actions repetitively and accurately.

How Much Does a Full Robotic Arm Cost?

The cost of a robotic arm can vary depending on its complexity and capabilities.

Simple models used in educational settings can cost a few thousand dollars. More advanced industrial or specialist surgical models can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What is the Most Common Robotic Arm?

The articulated robotic arm is the most common type.

It features rotary joints that allow for a wide range of movement, like a human arm. This makes it a versatile tool.

What are the 6 Common Types of Robotic Arms?

Cartesian Robotic Arms

Cartesian robotic arms operate along three linear axes. They're used in CNC machines and 3D printing.

Cylindrical Robotic Arms

Cylindrical robotic arms operate within a cylindrical space. They're used in assembly operations and spot welding.

Spherical Robotic Arms

Spherical robotic arms operate within a polar coordinate system. These arms offer a spherical work envelope. They're useful for handling radioactive materials, die casting, and arc welding.

SCARA Robotic Arms

The selective compliance assembly robot arm - aka SCARA - is ideal for high-speed assembly.

These arms excel in lateral movements. They're used in electronic assembly and bio-printing.

Articulated Robotic Arms

Articulated robotic arms feature rotary joints.

They can range from simple two-jointed structures to complex configurations like human arms. They're used for automotive assembly and even for capturing payloads in space.

Parallel Robotic Arms

Parallel robotic arms are also known as delta robots.

They can be identified by their parallel arm structure connected to one side by a common base.

They're fast and accurate. Ideal for pick-and-place automation, and packaging in high-speed manufacturing lines.


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