Brainchild of Germany company Festo and the Fraunhofer institute in Stuttgart is the Bionic Handling Assistant (BHA), which takes its cue from the supple movement of the trunk of an elephant.
The idea behind the BHA was to create a bionic arm that was safe to use around humans - that wouldn't knock them over when swinging their way or hurt them if it tried to pick something up. Research, dedication and a great deal of Animal Planet led the creators to idea of using the trunk of an elephant as a model, owing to its ability to twist and bend freely along its length.
To simulate the flexibility of an elephant's trunk, Festo and Fraunhofer used a multitude of soft segments joined together and each created from a flexible polyamide. Within the segments are air chambers that are inflated in sequence to produce movement. The entire arm is divided into three large sections to grant it the ability to bend back on itself, and this coupled with the ability to individually inflate each of the air chambers means that the arm can move in almost any direction and do so incredibly smoothly.
The arm itself has collision detection sensors to prevent a "Doc Oc" kind of moment from occurring, as well as resistance sensors that will limit its movement when it comes into contact with an object like a table or a face.
At the end of the BHA lies the fourth and final segment, the gripper, which is powered by air chambers in the hand axis. The gripper uses three collapsible fin-shaped "fingers" in order to pick up and securely hold objects. The collapsible nature of the FinGripper - which also sounds like an underwater supervillan - means that very little pressure is required to pick up and hold an object, again helping to limit potential injury.
Currently, the BHA is being tested on production lines with gripper sizes ranging from "can pick up a grapefruit" to "let me get that hazelnut for you". The BHA has been nominated for a German Future Award and is a part of the Festo "Bionic Learning Network". Ideally, the company would like to see these used in places from production lines to hospitals, with a potential for future home use.
Frankly, they're scary as hell, but at least they're gentle. Apparently.