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This robotic tentacle is soft as chewing gum and could snake through pipes

The octopus-inspired robot, made using 3-D printed molds, moves by inflating and deflating its segments. (Video: Tom Buehler, MIT CSAIL)

Inspired by octopus tentacles, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL)'s latest robot is as squishy as can be. It's a so-called "soft robot," meaning it lacks any hard mechanical pieces. In this case, the bot is made entirely of silicon rubber, poured into 3-D printed molds.

The tentacle features hollow chambers on either side of each of its segments. To move the bot, the CSAIL team pumps pressurized air into one side or another. As the silicon segments blow up like bubble gum, they're pushed in different directions to produce snake-like movements, which let the tentacle curve around corners.

Like other soft robots, this tentacle has potential in search and rescue missions -- where debris might make traditional robots prone to damage, or simple unable to squeeze through -- and for work with humans and animals, who might be injured by the hard edges of other bots.

The algorithm that controls the robot could eventually allow it to snake through pipes without a human pilot. Instead of needing constant direction, the tentacle would know how to move its body based on the shape of its environment. CSAIL engineers also hope to give a future version of the robot the ability to grip and move objects.