Skip to main content

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.”

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.

Editors' Recommendations

Dyllan Furness
Dyllan Furness is a freelance writer from Florida. He covers strange science and emerging tech for Digital Trends, focusing…
Gomer is a soft-robotics A.I. hoping to bring some cheer to your life
gomer soft robotics and plant

The characterization of robots as cold, unfeeling objects doesn't seem quite as accurate as it may have a few decades ago -- at least, not from a personality perspective. After all, the introduction of artificial intelligence has made some of these bots seem more human, capable of responding to natural language commands and even cracking a joke now and again. But despite these internal shifts in robot functionality, their external appearance still seems a bit, well, robotic. After all, as helpful as your Echo may be, it is more about information than actual physical help. But that may change with the introduction of the Gomer. This "soft robotics-powered hand and friendly A.I. personality" claims to be the first interactive home robot on the market.

Capable of holding and carrying soft objects (like food), recognizing friends, expressing emotions, and even playing games, the Gomer hopes to come closer to fulfilling the role of "friend" in your life, rather than simply your personal assistant. Thanks to its open API, the bot is constantly learning new skills to become even more useful to owners. But perhaps the unique thing about this particular bot is its soft-robotics technology. Gomer is said to be the first time this technology has been made available in homes, and the robot's flexible grip can pick up anything from a delicate egg to an odd-shaped toothbrush, as well as thin objects like an iPhone.

Read more
Robot hand is dexterous enough to screw in a lightbulb, turn a screwdriver
University of California San Diego

How many robots does it take to screw in a light bulb? If you’re talking about a new soft robotic gripper developed by engineers at the University of California, San Diego, the answer is just one. The soft robot gripper in question is able to pick up and manipulate objects based on touch alone, meaning that it can do so regardless of lighting conditions.

“In this work, we developed a soft gripper that uses tactile sensing to model the objects it's interacting with,” Michael Tolley, a roboticist at UC San Diego, told Digital Trends. “By rotating the object around in-hand, similar to what you would do when you reach into your pocket and feel for your keys, the gripper can map out a point cloud representing the object. Our gripper is unique in its ability to twist, sense, and model objects, allowing the gripper to operate in low light, low visibility, and uncertain conditions.”

Read more
Cthulhu comes to soft robotics with creepy OctopusGripper tentacle arm
robot octopusgripper tentacle arm 00000 bionicmotionrobot 13x18 cmyk

As a creature with no skeleton that’s composed almost entirely of soft muscle, the octopus is pretty fascinating. It’s extremely agile and can squeeze through the smallest of cracks, turn sharply in any direction while moving swiftly through water and use the suckers on its tentacles to adhere to smooth and strongly grasp objects.

That wide array of skills makes it interesting to soft robotics researchers, who are constantly on the lookout for animals they can borrow from for inspiration. It’s no wonder, then, that German industrial automation company Festo turned to the octopus for its latest creation: The so-called OctopusGripper robot tentacle arm.

Read more