One of the limitations surrounding the research of underwater creatures such as octopuses and jellyfish is that current robotic arms designed to handle them are typically hard and jerky, potentially harming them during handling. Scientists from the Wyss Institute, Harvard's John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Baruch College and the University of Rhode Island (URI) have created a new, safer device for handling such underwater creatures.

The team developed a soft robotic arm which is controlled by a glove outfitted with wireless soft sensors, making it possible to grasp and handle delicate aquatic life.

"This new soft robotic arm replaces the hard, rigid arms that come standard on most submersibles, enabling our soft robotic grippers to reach and interact with sea life with much greater ease across a variety of environments and allowing us to explore parts of the ocean that are currently understudied," said first author Brennan Phillips, Ph.D., an assistant professor at URI who was a postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute and SEAS when the research was completed.

The glove's rotary, bending and gripping modules are easy to add and remove. They enable the arm to move in ways that make certain tasks possible. Additionally, the system includes a compact and hearty hydraulic control system, making deployment possible in harsh and remote environments.

"The currently available subsea robotic arms work well for oil and gas exploration, but not for handling delicate marine life — using them is like trying to pick up a napkin with a metal crab claw," said co-author David Gruber, Ph.D., who is a professor of biology at Baruch College, CUNY and a National Geographic Explorer. "The glove control system allows us to have much more intuitive control over the soft robotic arm, like how we would move our own arms while SCUBA diving."

In a trial of the robotic arm, scientists wearing the glove were able to successfully collect and interact with mid-water and deep-sea organisms such as a sea cucumber, a glass sponge, a branching coral and free-floating bioluminescent tunicates.

"This low-power, glove-controlled soft robot was designed with the future marine biologist in mind, who will be able to conduct science well beyond the limits of SCUBA and with a comparable or better means than via a human diver," said Robert Wood, Ph.D., a senior author of the paper.

The team continues to modify the design of the system hoping to incorporate non-invasive RNA and DNA sampling capabilities into the arm’s actuating units, making it possible for scientists to experiment in an “underwater laboratory” where sea life can be released unharmed.

"The Wyss Institute's goal is to get scientific discoveries out of the lab and into the world, but sometimes we have to figure out how to modify the scientific laboratory itself so that it can be moved out of academia in order to be able to probe real-world environments. This research marks the beginning of that possibility for the deep sea, and the advances they describe could have much broader value, even for medical and surgical applications," said Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., the founding director of the Wyss Institute.

The research is published in Scientific Reports.

To contact the author of this article, email mdonlon@globalspec.com