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Robo-octopus wanted by EU

Italian roboticists to build the first completely soft-bodied robot based on the octopus.

While they're fascinating to watch and sometimes even delicious to eat, how many times a day do you really think about the octopus or what an amazing piece of natural machinery it is?

Cecilia Laschi, professor of industrial bioengineering at the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa, Italy, is so impressed by the octopus she's leading an extensive team of roboticists and scientists to build the first soft-bodied robot replicate of one. Which may not seem that exciting, until you learn just how unique the muscle tissue and dexterity of the octopus is.

As New Scientist cleverly pointed out, if the "Octopus" project is successful a robot someday might be able to accomplish the task seen in this video by Dr. James B. Wood, an assistant research scientist at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences who maintains a Web site on cephalopods.

If you think it through, the octopus is a very dexterous creature that if translated into a robot could provide endless capability for exploring hard to reach places in the ocean. While we've seen other aquatic robots reaching for the depths of the ocean or mimicking creatures like fish and snakes, a completely soft-bodied underwater robot would be groundbreaking.

Because it's made of muscular hydrostat (the same type of muscle as the human tongue) the tentacles of an octopus can bend in any direction. When an octopus reaches for something its tentacle thins and elongates as it stretches toward the object of its desire enabling it to access crevices. Once it reaches its destination, the octopus can then grasp an object by wrapping the end of its tentacle around it.

These are the functions Laschi's group are aiming to re-create.

"By drawing inspiration from natural skills of octopus, and by analyzing the geometry and mechanics of the muscular structure of its arm, we propose the design of a robot arm consisting of an artificial muscular hydrostat structure, which is completely soft and compliant, but also able to stiffen," Laschi said in her group's proposal.

The ambitious undertaking has an impressive backer. Laschi's project, officially titled "Octopus," was proposed and approved by European Commission's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), the EU's main funding organization for research initiatives in technology.

It's a four-year effort to be carried out at the Centre for Marine Robotics and Sea Technologies in Livorno, Italy.

Collaborating on the project from within the Scuolo Superiore Sant'Anna are: Paolo Dario, professor and coordinator of the Advanced Robotics Technology and Systems Laboratory (ARTS Lab) and Research Centre in Micro-Engineering Laboratory (CRIM Lab); Barbara Mazzolai, research assistant at CRIM Lab; Luca Sebastiani, professor of molecular biology and coordinator of Biological Laboratories (BioLabs); and Antonio Minnocci, a technician at BioLabs