Soft robotic hand gives scientists new grip on deep sea life

It’s often said that we know less about the deep ocean than we do about the moon. The pitch-black, high-pressure underwater environment makes it tough to brave its depth — even when explorers dive vicariously through remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

But we learn more about the deep ocean with every passing day. Marine biologists still regularly come across unidentified species and, when they reach out to collect them with UAVs robot arms, they need to be gentle to not damage the specimen.

To that end, a team of roboticists and marine biologists from Harvard University have created a sampling hand that’s soft and flexible enough to handle fragile organisms. What’s more, the hand can be 3D printed on the fly so that researchers can make modifications while out in the field. A paper detailing the research was published recently in the journal PLOS One.

“When interacting with soft, delicate underwater creatures, it makes the most sense for your sampling equipment to also be soft and gentle,” Rob Wood, a Harvard robotics professor and co-author of the recent study, said in a press release. “It’s only recently that the field of soft robotics has developed to the point where we can actually build robots that can grasp these animals reliably and harmlessly.”

soft robot hand ocean gripper2
Schmidt Ocean Institute

Most ROVs are designed as robust machines, built for underwater oil and mining, rather than the delicate task of picking up sea life. In contrast, the hand-like gripper developed by Wood and his team is made of polyurethane and other soft materials, allowing it to gently grab creates like sponges and sea anemones. In a recent trial aboard the R/V Falkor in the South Pacific, the soft gripper was attached as an extension to the default hard claw of the ROV.

Since deep ocean sampling often takes place on long expeditions to remote regions of the globe, it was important for the researchers to be able to customize the tool on the go, adjusting and replacing parts as needed.

“Being on a ship for a month meant that we had to be able to make anything we needed, and it turns out that the 3D printers worked really well for doing that on the boat. We had them running almost 24/7, and we were able to take feedback from the ROV operators about their experience using the soft grippers and make new versions overnight to address any problems,” said Daniel Vogt, a Harvard research engineer and the paper’s first author.

In one instant, the ROV operators requested the additional of a sort of fingernail to the front of the gripper, which enabled them to pry specimens off of hard surfaces.

Harvard isn’t alone in developing 3D-printed robotic parts. In 2016, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology demonstrated a rapid fabrication process that let 3D-printed robots hit the ground running — or, rather, walking.

Moving forward, the Harvard team hopes to equip the gripper with even more features, including sensors that could let the devices feel the firmness of a given object and adjust its strength accordingly.

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