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What do you get when you cross a robot with an octopus?

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    Four fingertip-sized suction cups can pick up a wine bottle. The prototypes are composed of elastomeric and rigid materials, with plans to be tested in both air and water. (Doug LaFon, U.S. Army Research Laboratory)

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    ECBC engineering technician Brad Ruprecht used a multi-material 3D printer to produce numerous self-sealing suction cup prototypes for ARL's Chad Kessens, a robotic manipulation researcher. ECBC's advanced design and rapid prototyping capabilities provided workable samples right off printer. (Doug LaFon, U.S. Army Research Laboratory)

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    Kessens' self-sealing suction cup design features a central plug that maximizes suction strength to improve a robot's ability to grasp a wide variety of unknown objects. (Doug LaFon, U.S. Army Research Laboratory)

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Inspired by the way they grasp objects, the Army is developing self-sealing suction cups for robots -- just like those on an octopus.

The design, from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, Edgewood Chemical Biological Center and University of Maryland scientists, features a self-sealing component and the capability to activate suction cups in reaction to the size and shape of the object the robot wants to pick up.

For more than five decades, researchers have been honing suction technology for robots. This team hopes that their approach goes beyond previous achievements that are often limited in terms of the specific size and shapes that are graspable.

Manipulating unknown objects is difficult for robots; self-sealing suction cups could make it an easier task -- and boost the deployment of robots into dangerous environments instead of human first responders.

In the event of a Fukushima-type disaster, for example, robots could reduce risk to humans by operating in contaminated areas or dangerous areas but to be useful these robots need to be able to grasp like a human to perform essential activities like closing a valve, recovering an object, operating a tool or opening a door.

One challenge the team tackled was how small they could make the suction cups while still ensuring they are functional.

Currently the self-sealing suction cup ranges from the size of a hand palm to a fingertip with four fingertip-sized cups strong enough to pick up a full mug.

Their approach has modified the technology to maximize the suction strength so a robot could grasp a large range of items.

Like an octopus, their suction cup has potential to work even better underwater.

The extra pressure from the water depth adds force, enhancing the efficacy of the tech. An underwater version would most likely use different materials that could withstand salt water.

Above-water prototypes were created using a 3D printer and rigid materials like nylon and elastomeric materials like liquid photo polymer that solidifies into plastic when exposed to ultraviolet light.

3D printing allows the production of working suction cups right off of the machine and the team reported that ECBC could produce twenty prototypes of varying sizes and shapes within twenty minutes.

Next steps would include developing a robot hand or tentacle equipped with their octopus suction cups.

Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at wargames@foxnews.com or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.

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