Aug 3, 2018 | By Thomas

While the deep ocean – dark, cold, under high pressure, and airless – is inhospitable to humans, it is filled with delicate organisms that thrive in its harsh environment. Studying those creatures requires specialized equipment mounted on remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that can withstand those conditions. However these devices have been designed primarily for the offshore energy industry or military applications and are often not suitable for interacting with soft-bodied and highly fragile organisms.

Delicate grasping of a sea cucumber at a depth of 1282 m. Credit: Vogt et al., 2018, courtesy of Schmidt Ocean Institute

Now, a team 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 harming them. Moreover, 3D printing of soft robotic manipulators enables real-time manufacturing and modification of tools in highly remote areas.

The team's paper was published August 1 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

The “soft gripper” devices 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. The grippers 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.

Fully 3D-printed version of the grippers. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

“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, co-author of a new paper on the research from the City University of New York.

During a deep-sea expedition to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area from October 5 to November 2, 2017, the team used their soft grippers for sampling species down to 2224m via a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). The crew used two 3D printers on their boat to build new components on the fly.

"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," Gruber said.

"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 Research Engineer at the Wyss Institute.

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. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The soft grippers reportly 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. This modification enabled successful grasping of fragile animals such as sea cucumbers, which have historically been difficult to collect undamaged using rigid mechanical arms and suction samplers. In addition, a flexible mesh was also added to each finger to help keep samples contained within the fingers' grip.

The team is 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, the goal is to capture sea creatures in the deep ocean and obtain full physical and genetic data without removing them from their native habitats.

"As scientific expeditions to remote parts of the world are costly and lengthy to plan, on-the-fly printing of soft robot manipulators offers a real-time solution to better understand and interact with delicate deep-sea environments, soft-bodied, brittle, and otherwise fragile organisms," say Vogt et al. "This also offers a less invasive means of interacting with slow-growing deep marine organisms, some of which can be up to 18,000 years old."



Posted in 3D Printing Application

Source: Harvard University


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