DIY Robot Grippers Help Study Deep-Sea Organisms
Meghan Brown posted on August 03, 2018 |
Customized soft grippers can be 3D printed on board ships and iterate based on operator feedback.
A three-finger soft manipulator grasping a sea anemone attached to a rock on a hard substrate. (Image courtesy of Schmidt Ocean Institute.)
A three-finger soft manipulator grasping a sea anemone attached to a rock on a hard substrate. (Image courtesy of Schmidt Ocean Institute.)

The cold and dark depths of the ocean are uninhabitable for humans, but are filled with delicate organisms that thrive in these harsh environments. If you want to study those deep-ocean plants and animals, you require specialized equipment mounted on a submersible remotely operated vehicle (ROV); any other type of equipment could literally crack under the water pressure.

A multidisciplinary group of engineers, marine biologists, and roboticists have recently developed a sampling device that is soft, flexible and customizable, and which allows scientists to gently collect different types of organisms from the sea without harming them. It also allows 3D-printed modifications to the device overnight without the need to return to a land-based laboratory.

The "soft gripper" devices that the team designed have 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.

"Many of the animals we encounter in the deep-sea are new species and these soft robots allow us to delicately interact and study a more diverse suite of fauna," said David Gruber, professor of biology and environmental science at the City University of New York's Baruch College. The grippers are attached to a wooden ball that is held and manipulated using an ROV's hard claw-like tools, and is controlled by a human operator on the ship to which the ROV is tethered.

The team put the latest version of their soft grippers to the test on a voyage aboard R/V Falkor in the remote Phoenix Islands Protected Area in the South Pacific. Performing research in such an isolated environment meant that obtaining new parts for the grippers would be nearly impossible, so they brought two 3D printers along for creating new components on-the-fly.

The researchers used 3D printers on board the ship to create new versions of the grippers (orange) overnight in response to feedback from the ROV pilots and biologists. (Image courtesy Wyss Institute at Harvard University.)

The researchers used 3D printers on board the ship to create new versions of the grippers (orange) overnight in response to feedback from the ROV pilots and biologists. (Image courtesy Wyss Institute at Harvard University.)

"By 3D printing at sea, we can innovate on-the-fly, and come up with soft robotics to interact with soft and delicate animals that were previously unexamined as they were too fragile," said Gruber, who is also a 2017-2018 Radcliffe Fellow and National Geographic Explorer.

"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," added Daniel Vogt, a research engineer at the Wyss Institute.

The soft grippers were able to collect sea slugs, corals, sponges and other marine life much more effectively and with less damage than traditional underwater sampling tools. Based on input from the ROV operators, the team 3D-printed "fingernail" extensions that could be added to the gripper's fingers to help them get underneath samples that were sitting on hard surfaces. A flexible mesh was also added to each finger to help keep samples contained within the fingers' grip.

This fully 3D-printed version of the grippers includes
This fully 3D-printed version of the grippers includes "fingernails" on the ends of the fingers to help pick up organisms that are sitting on hard surfaces, as well as mesh extensions between the fingers to keep samples secure. (Image courtesy Wyss Institute at Harvard University.)

Another, two-fingered version of the grippers was also created based on ROV pilots' familiarity with controlling existing two-fingered graspers, and their request that the two fingers be able to hold samples with both a "pinch" grasp (for small objects) and a "power" grasp (for large objects).

A modified version of the gripper with only two fingers can perform both a “power grasp” for holding large objects and a “pinch grasp” for holding small objects, much like a human hand. (Image courtesy of Wyss Institute at Harvard University.)

A modified version of the gripper with only two fingers can perform both a “power grasp” for holding large objects and a “pinch grasp” for holding small objects, much like a human hand. (Image courtesy of Wyss Institute at Harvard University.)

The team is in the process of further developing 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.


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