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deep sea

A Gentle (Robotic) Hand

Paper: Vogt DM, Becker KP, Phillips BT, Graule MA, Rotjan RD, Shank TM, et al. (2018) Shipboard design and fabrication of custom 3D-printed soft robotic manipulators for the investigation of delicate deep-sea organisms. PLoS ONE 13(8): e0200386. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0200386

A glass sea sponge. Scientists have discovered glass sponges aged at around 18,000 years old. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Marine scientists are hard at work learning everything they can about the big blue, which is absolutely necessary seeing as how we know more about space than we do about the ocean. The world of deep-sea environments is fascinating, holding critters that have been aged at over 18,000 years old! The potential knowledge sourced from deep-sea organisms is therefore astounding. Scientists are able to extract information such as changes in paleonutrient content in the ocean over large periods of time just by sampling these long-lived critters. There is so much to learn from what we’ve yet to actually see.

Understanding the ocean in detail is tedious and time consuming work: only in the last 5 decades have we developed technology advanced enough to non-invasively observe the ocean. To truly map out the various ecosystems that lie within and discover species we either never knew existed or have very little information on, scientists need to gear up and dive in. The current tools of choice are submersible vehicles. In order to analyze organisms up close, these vehicles are equipped with hard, inflexible materials that serve as “arms” or “hands”. However, many of these deep-sea animals are incredibly fragile, and hard devices often hurt and damage delicate species. Deep-sea knowledge is indispensable– so how can we continue to study these organisms without hurting them?

The answer lies in a gentle, soft touch.

With the increased accessibility of 3D printing, scientists are now creating soft manipulators, using flexible materials, to attach onto submersible vehicles. Because these appendages are so delicate, they ease the process of collecting fragile samples. These tools have the added bonus of conforming to the shape of the manipulated organism. So far, we’ve successfully deployed soft robots into environments up to 800 meters deep! 3D printing offers another unique advantage: that of real-time problem solving and adaptive solutions. When observing in remote areas for long periods of time with minimal space on board, researchers often lack abundant resources. If a tool doesn’t work properly, the entire observation is compromised. With 3D printing, researchers can now learn from obstacles or problems, and adapt to create ad-hoc tools for observation.

The ability to 3D print soft manipulators both drastically reduces time it takes to produce them, but also enables real-time, remote production. Source: Vogt et al. (2018)

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area. This is the largest marine protected area in the world and encompasses 8 islands in Kiribati. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Vogt et al. (2018) experimented with 3D printing custom soft robotic appendages attached to submersible vehicles in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). PIPA is the largest UNESCO World Heritage site which means the area holds an extremely unique environment with high biodiversity. As a protected area, PIPA experiences minimal human activity– making this largely unexplored region perfect to test out soft manipulators on understudied, deep-sea coral, invertebrates, coral epifauna, and sediment. Inspired by soft manipulators initially developed at the Harvard Microrobotics Lab, Vogt et al. (2018) adapted appendages based on real-time learned experiences. Their first few dives were to test out these previously built appendages, and the consequent dives allowed Vogt et al. (2018) to modify them based on various challenges. Initial adaptations added a flexible “palm” attached to “fingers” which decreased the force of accidentally colliding with surrounding marine objects. Consequent adaptations introduced interchangeable “fingernails” to the tips of the soft, compliant “fingers” which allowed researchers to better grasp organisms from underneath when they were settled on hard surfaces.

Adapted, 3D printed soft manipulators. Source: Vogt et al. (2018)

Vogt et al. (2018) saw success in their real-time, adaptive solutions, ultimately creating a purpose built tool kit meant to delicately handle fragile marine life. They were able to collect a goniasterid (a type of sea star) laying on hard substrate without incurring any damage to the organism– something near impossible to achieve using inflexible, hard manipulators. They were even able to gently replace organisms such as glass sponges back onto hard substrata they were found on.

Grasping a sea star (goniasterid) Source: Vogt et al. (2018)

Comparisons of the 3D printed soft manipulators to how we gently hold objects with our hands. Source: Vogt et al. (2018)

Innovation is the center of science– and 3D printing soft, flexible manipulators is the perfect example of how adaptive creativity can increase our understanding of the blue frontier. When we have the chance to study the ocean non-invasively and in even greater detail, we can work more effectively to protect every ecosystem and organism that lives within it.

Rishya Narayanan

Rishya is pursuing an M.S. in Environmental Science Communications and Media Advocacy at Northeastern University and has a B.A. in Psychology and Sociology. She has extensively worked at the New England Aquarium as an Educator and at Save the Harbor/Save the Bay as their Communications and Public Relations Coordinator. Currently, she works as a Graduate Research Assistant examining communications on climate resilience in coastal communities.

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