A new life-saving device that could change how search-and-rescue missions work today is making waves in the global scientific community. An international group of scientists created a robotic octopus arm that can wrap around objects and then stiffen to grasp them.

The robotic prototype is approximately 17 inches long and modeled after a real octopus that lives in the Mediterranean Sea. The arm is part of a larger interdisciplinary European project funded by the European Commission to create a functional full-body octopus robot.

“Octopuses are considered to be among the most developed and intelligent animals in the invertebrate kingdom,” writes Hebrew University Prof. Binyamin Hochner, a member of the team, on his website. “In contrast to the movements produced by appendages that contain skeletal support, the impressive motor performances of the octopus are executed by bone-less and highly flexible arms. This flexibility and the need to coordinate between eight arms, requires a high degree of motor-control. Elucidating the mechanisms and principles of the arm motor control at the cellular and behavioral levels, is the long term goal of our research.”

The Octopus Project includes Hochner, Cecilia Laschi, an associate professor of biorobotics at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, Michele Giorelli and Marcello Calisti of the BioRobotics Institute Paolo Dario, and Barbara Mazzolai at the Center for Micro-BioRobotics in Pontedera, Italy.

The waterproof arm is made from silicone and embedded with a steel cable anchored to a set of nylon cables. By controlling the cable, the arm can grasp objects.

“The applications we envisage are all the applications where you send the robot into very small spaces for exploration tasks but also for rescue under debris,” Laschi told Discovery News. A soft octopus-like robot could be controlled remotely to retrieve people in a difficult underwater environment, she added.

The team published details about the arm recently in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics. They plan to complete a full body robotic octopus with eight arms by January 2013.