Soft robotic grippers are ready to lend researchers a hand in underwater exploration, collecting fragile ocean specimens for a more intimate look at marine life.
While critical for exploring underwater settings, robotic vehicles and tools generally do not handle fragile corals and sponge samples well.
"They were using rigid Jaws of Life-type grippers designed for the oil and gas industry that were totally overpowered and were destroying things," recalled Harvard engineer and roboticist Robert J. Wood in a press release, saying the knowledge ignited in him an idea for a more viable soft robotics solution.
Together with marine biologist David Gruber of City University of New York, Wood designed and tested spongy robotic grippers to collect fragile deep-sea biological specimens. Their expedition to the Gulf of Eilat in the Red Sea, which houses one of the most extensive and diverse coral reefs in the world, marked the debut of soft robotics for the gentle sampling of ocean-floor fauna.
The team – detailing their work in the journal Soft Robotics – developed two kinds of grippers, each able to gently recover objects of varying shapes and sizes. One can coil around like a boa constrictor and clutch small, irregular-shaped items, while the other is a bellows-type model that grips like a pair of hands.
The researchers focused on “simple construction, inexpensive materials and a modular design” that could make the “'squishy' robot fingers,” as they call the technology, easy to reproduce and be repaired and configured.
The field testing in the northern Red Sea occurred back in May, where the team held over a dozen dives that ranged from 100 to 170 meters (about 588 feet). The grippers retrieved samples of relatively sufficient yet delicate red soft coral, along with difficult-to-acquire coral whips – all brought undamaged to the surface.
Gruber and the team hoped to apply the soft robotics technique to implement in situ measurement of organisms and even gene expression analysis. The ability to conduct this research on the ocean floor instead of bringing the marine samples to the surface will protect the organisms from stress from temperature, light and pressure changes.
Wood also intends to incorporate soft sensor technology to let the operator “feel” the objects the gripper is touching – a step ahead of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) currently relying on visual feedback alone.