(CNN)Elephants are the largest land mammals on Earth, and understanding them better could lead to some incredibly large breakthroughs in science.
Researchers backed by the European Union's Horizon 2020 innovation program are doing a deep-dive study on elephant trunks, with the aim of improving the future of robotics, materials science and biology.
Elephants' trunks are both delicate and sturdy -- they are capable of grasping a single blade of grass but can also carry nearly 600 pounds. And scientists argue that these versatile trunks -- called proboscis -- are incredible inspiration for the next generation of bio-inspired robots.
"Classical robots are extremely good for performing a specific task for which they've been designed...If you want that robot to do something a little different, it will fail miserably," said Michel Milinkovitch, professor of the physics of biology at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. "But when you look at living organisms, they've been optimized also for versatility."
Red carpet research
In new research published in Current Biology, Milinkovitch's lab explained how elephants can move their trunks with almost infinite degrees of freedom, combining about 20 basic movements to carry out more complicated manoeuvres.
Using technology borrowed from the movie industry, the University of Geneva researchers were able to conduct a high-resolution motion capture analysis of elephants' trunks as they picked up objects of various shapes and sizes.
The team placed reflective markers along the trunks of two African elephants, and then they set up infrared cameras around the elephants to capture their movements and measure the trajectories of their trunks in three dimensions. The process is similar to how actors wearing motion-capture markers were used to create the movements of the characters of Gollum in "Lord of The Rings" and Na'vis in "Avatar."
"Elephants have sort of a toolkit of simple movements, and they can combine these simple movements to complex trajectories," Milinkovitch told CNN. "They can adapt to the object you give them."
Elephants use suction to pick up lightweight objects. But to pick up heavier things, they use suction to secure the position of the objects, and trunk wrapping to actually grip and lift things, he said. The study also found that elephants can form "pseudo-joints" with their trunks, similar to the structure of a human elbow and wrist.
"There's a very fine control over what part of the trunk is contracting," Milinkovitch said. "It's not the whole trunk that is elongating and shortening -- it's portions, depending on what the elephant is doing."
Researchers also performed CT scans and MRIs on the trunk of a deceased elephant and used high resolution cameras to create a 3D model of a trunk, allowing them to better understand the anatomy of an elephant's muscle groups, skin and connective tissues.
From trunks to tech
The study data will be used to help design an innovative "soft" robotic arm, which is being developed alongside researchers from Italy's Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Pontedera and Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa, as well as the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and 3D printing company Photocentric.
"It's a new paradigm in robotics," Milinkovitch said. "Instead of using metallic segments connected by articulations, the idea is to have objects that are moving but they are made of flexible materials."
Scientists say copying the natural anatomy would be impossible, but they plan to use the data on elephant trunk movements to create similarly versatile movements in a robot. Lucia Beccai, the scientific coordinator of the EU-backed "Proboscis Project," told CNN that they plan to have a working prototype in about a year.
"The data is exceptional, but now the effort is really to translate this biological data into some engineering specifications, which don't need to copy the natural organ," said Beccai, who is a senior researcher at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia. "(We) need to extract some simplifying principles that can make the behavior simple enough to be effective, adaptable to changes, and efficient."
The project is also spurring advancements in material science, as researchers have developed a new material that mimics the useful properties of elephant skin and can be 3D printed for robotic prototypes.
"You will have something that can deal with high payloads and small payloads. From an industrial point of view, it could have a great impact," Beccai said, adding that the new materials and technologies will be commercialized for a wide range of uses.
The team envisions the soft robotic arms they are creating will be able to work on factory production lines, be utilized for search and rescue operations, or even be used in the healthcare field to lift and assist elderly patients.
Raising awareness about elephant conservation
Milinkovitch added that aside from the industrial applications of the research, it's also important to understand the animals better.
"It's also a feeling of wonder just looking at these amazing creatures," Milinkovitch said, noting that African forest elephants and African savanna elephants are endangered species.
Elephants face threats from habitat loss, as well as poaching due to the illegal ivory trade. An estimated 20,000 African elephants are killed each year for their tusks, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
In the last three decades, the population of African forest elephants fell by more than 86%, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
"We also hope to increase awareness of the conservation of this very unique animal," Beccai said. "There are a plethora of principles that we can learn from nature, it's not just there for our well-being and happiness -- it is really an incredible source of engineering principles."