The Octopus and Soft Robotics

The Octopus and Soft Robotics
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Octopuses are cool. Part of the Cephalopoda class (pronounced sef-uh-luh-pod), which is any member of the phylum Mollusca, a small group of highly advanced and organized marine animals including eight-armed octopuses, ten-armed squids, cuttlefishes, and the shelled chambered nautiluses.  Octopus size is so varied it can be as gigantic as a school bus or as small as your finger.

  • Think you know a chameleon?  The octopus can beat a chameleon by using more colors to camouflage itself, and it can also change the texture of its skin to mimic a rock or a shelf of coral.
  • Think you know about snakes and their deadly venom?  The blue-ringed octopus is the smallest octopus, yet a bite from its razor-sharp beak emits a poison that not only paralyzes its victim—it has enough venom to kill ten people—(more powerful than any snake or spider), and there is no antidote.
  • Think you know the socialness and the intelligence of dolphins? Octopuses are not only smart, but they can recognize and remember people and even though they are solitary creatures, they will hug a human’s arm using the suckers along with its eight appendages.

Surprising Adaptations

This sea creature has some amazing characteristics, right?  It adapts to its surroundings in ingenious ways as well. Do you know that if a predator bites off an octopus’ arm, the severed part will continue to twitch and draw away the prey?  But the best trick of them all is that the arm will grow back. Yes, they can regrow their arms.

The octopus can taste with its skin, and its eyelids, too.  The hundreds of suckers on the giant Pacific octopus, about 16,000 of them, can daintily pick up small objects by acting like a humans’ thumb and forefinger.  If the object they pick up tastes good, well, they will pass it from sucker to sucker until it gets to the mouth—like a food-conveyor-belt.

Octopuses are also masters of illusion and hiding.  Of the 250 species, its appearance may sometimes look fat and red, skinny and white, tall and brown—have stripes, splotches or become invisible.  It can take a three-foot-long body and a melon-sized head and squeeze itself through a hole the size of a thimble. If that weren’t enough, he can release a smokescreen of ink.  If it finds itself in danger? The octopus can swim away quickly by filling its mantle with water and blasting it out through a funnel tube giving them extra speed. This blastoff is referred to as, “jet propulsion.”

It’s All About the Arms

Biologists are fascinated by the intra-arm communication and the diffused intelligence of the octopuses’ appendages.  And for the not-so-squeamish, chefs in some Korean restaurants serve up those arms Korean-style, “Sannakji”, which, to the uninitiated is live, raw, chopped-up octopus arms served on lettuce with raw garlic, green onions and jalapenos (and optional dipping sauces).  The only problem with this novelty dish is eating it: the arms will squiggle up to fifteen minutes after arrival on your plate and the suckers will not only attach themselves to the plate, they will grab onto your gums while you try to eat it.

Armed and Dangerous

In the wild, octopus have to be stealthy.  How to escape a moray eel? How can I capture that spiny crab?  What can I pull out between that rock crevice? How can I stay safe when I have no shell?  Some octopus have been filmed carrying coconut shell halves to use as portable lairs; and they can fold their bodies to fit inside of the shells too.

In captivity, it’s said they will escape a marine tank, go next door to eat the other marine fish in a separate tank, and then return unnoticed. They can certainly unscrew the top off a container. A wily engineer once made some clear plastic cubes to keep the octopus entertained—because they are smart and get bored easily.  Each cube had a different latch with a tasty crab inside. The octopuses figured out slide bolts, a lever arm, and one eager octopus created a small hole to suck the treat out. Another just crushed the box.


Researchers have been studying the octopuses’ arms own array of nerve cells dedicated to operating somewhat independently of the brain. Here is the scientist’s problem. Rigid computer parts, the weight of batteries and the need for power have always been a stopper for highly automated robotics.  Harvard University researchers have just recently built Octobot using flexible components.  3-d printing was used for the body, along with molding and soft lithography to create the pliability of the arms.  Basically, Octobot has no hard parts, no motor and does not operate with electricity, but instead, runs on pneumatic-based gas pressure created from a hydrogen peroxide chemical-reaction mix.  The chemicals create a gas that when mixed together, fill the soft octopus arms and enable them to move!


Another research target is concerning the fine movement of the cephalopod’s arm suckers, which are constantly gathering information about their environment, both tactile and chemical, and can rotate and move individually.  Each sucker sensor has neurons for taste, (chemoreceptors), for pressure, (mechanoreceptors), and for position, (position detectors). Scientists are hoping to mimic and transfer some of these natural abilities into artificial intelligence robots in the near future.

We who are in awe of octopuses, will have to see where this concept engineering takes us.


Burrows, Leah. “The first autonomous, entirely soft robot." The Harvard Gazette, 2016. Retrieved from:

Courage, Katherine Harmon. Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea. New York: Penguin Group, 2013.

Gross, Miriam J. The Octopus: Weird Sea Creatures. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2006. Book.

Lunis, Natalie. Blue-Ringed Octopus. New York: Bearport Publishing, 2009. Book.

Montgomery, Sy. The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. Book.

Montgomery, Sy. The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. New York: Atria, 2015.

Octopus-Inspired Camouflage for Soft Robotics - YouTube

Octopuses are the World’s Greatest Escape Artists - YouTube

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