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The Secret To Better Soft-Bodied Robots Might Be Found In Elephant Trunks


An elephant's trunk is amazingly versatile, used for all types of things.

ANDREW SCHULZ: The first is manipulation - so grabbing, sucking up objects. The second is breathing, sound production, talking to different elephant herds, touch. And finally, olfaction - so smelling.

DAVID HU: Yeah, the trunk's really the - how they can deal with the world in a gentle way.

SHAPIRO: That's Georgia Tech Ph.D. student Andrew Schulz and his adviser, David Hu. With funding from the Army - which we'll explain later - they investigated elephant trunk suction.


But first, they needed an elephant. Zoo Atlanta was willing to help. The scientists presented an African elephant there with cubes of carrot, rutabaga and potato, which the elephant hoovered up with ease, as you can hear.


SHAPIRO: They also challenged the elephant to lift a thin, very breakable tostada.

HU: And I said, we don't think this elephant can pick this thing up. But amazingly, it did.

SHAPIRO: Meanwhile, they used video and ultrasound to study the elephant's trunk inside and out.

KELLY: Using those observations, along with some math, they calculated that elephants suck in air at more than 330 miles per hour. That is 30 times faster than a human sneeze. It is on par with the speed of a bullet train. The research was published by the Royal Society.

SHAPIRO: And as for why the Army funded this work? Well, here's Schulz.

SCHULZ: If you look at things like flexibility and strength, they're commonly as, like, opposites - right? - where if something's really flexible, it's not strong at all.

SHAPIRO: He points out that elephant trunks are both of those things.

KELLY: And David Hu says that makes trunks an ideal model for gentle robots, which might pick up fruit or help the elderly.

HU: And so the Army was just fascinated by this idea of being, you know, gentle enough to pick up a peanut but strong enough to push down a door if you need to.

SHAPIRO: As for whether humans can lift a tortilla chip by sniffing? Well, they did the math on that, too, and say it is likely infeasible.

KELLY: Infeasible doesn't mean you can't try it at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF FM-84'S "EVERYTHING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.