Supplementary information accompanies this paper at https://doi.org/10.1186/s10033-019-0426-7.
Conventional manipulators with rigid structures and stiffness actuators have poor flexibility, limited obstacle avoidance capability, and constrained workspace. Some developed flexible or soft manipulators in recent years have the characteristics of infinite degrees of freedom, high flexibility, environmental adaptability, and extended manipulation capability. However, these existing manipulators still cannot achieve the shrinking motion and independent control of specified segments like the animals, which hinders their applications. In this paper, a flexible bio-tensegrity manipulator, inspired by the longitudinal and transversal muscles of octopus tentacles, was proposed to mimic the shrinking behavior and achieve the variable motion patterns of each segment. Such proposed manipulator uses the elastic spring as the backbone, which is driven by four cables and has one variable structure mechanism in each segment to achieve the independent control of each segment. The variable structure mechanism innovatively contains seven lock-release states to independently control the bending and shrinking motion of each segment. After the kinematic modeling and analysis, one prototype of such bionic flexible manipulator was built and the open-loop control method was proposed. Some proof-of-concept experiments, including the shrinking motion, bending motion, and variable structure motion, were carried out by controlling the length of four cables and changing the lock-release states of the variable structure mechanism, which validate the feasibility and validity of our proposed prototype. Meanwhile, the experimental results show the flexible manipulator can accomplish the bending and shrinking motion with the relative error less than 6.8% through the simple independent control of each segment using the variable structure mechanism. This proposed manipulator has the features of controllable degree-of-freedom in each segment, which extend their environmental adaptability, and manipulation capability.