The deep ocean – dark, cold, under high pressure, and airless – is notoriously inhospitable to humans, yet it teems with organisms that manage to thrive in its harsh environment.
What does it take?
Studying those creatures requires specialized equipment mounted on remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that can withstand those conditions in order to collect samples. This equipment, designed primarily for the underwater oil and mining industries, is clunky, expensive, and difficult to maneuver with the kind of control needed for interacting with delicate sea life. Picking a delicate sea slug off the ocean floor with these tools is akin to trying to pluck a grape using pruning shears.
Now, a multidisciplinary group of engineers, marine biologists, and roboticists has developed an alternative sampling device that is soft, flexible, and customizable, allowing scientists to gently grab different types of organisms from the sea without damaging them, and 3D-print modifications to the device overnight without the need to return to a land-based laboratory.
How does it work?
The “soft gripper” devices the team designed have anywhere from two to five “fingers” made of polyurethane and other squishy materials that open and close via a low-pressure hydraulic pump system that uses seawater to drive their movement. The grippers themselves are attached to a wooden ball that is held and manipulated using an ROV’s existing, hard claw-like tools, controlled by a human operator on the ship to which the ROV is tethered.
“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, M.S., a Research Engineer at the Wyss Institute.
The team is continuing to develop the grippers, hoping to add sensors that can indicate to the ROV operator when the grippers come into contact with an organism, “feel” how hard or soft it is, and take other measurements. Ultimately, their goal is to be able to capture sea creatures in the deep ocean and obtain full physical and genetic data without taking them out of their native habitats.