Aug 2, 2018

Researchers 3D Print Soft Robotic Manipulators to Investigate Fragile Deep-Sea Life

During an oceanographic research cruise to a remote region of the Pacific Ocean, Harvard researchers used 3D printed soft robotic manipulators to investigate fragile deep-sea organisms.

Although we know about a majority of the creatures and habitats that dwell on the surface of our planet, there is still much to learn about the depths of our vast oceans.

Marine biologists often use conventional devices that are inflexible; these aren’t always suitable for investigating soft-bodied, fragile organisms found in the deepest parts of the sea. Researchers from Harvard University decided to tackle this challenge by developing a device that would allow them to investigate and interact with deep-sea organisms without harming them.

And so, the researchers came up with the solution of 3D printing soft robotic manipulators. These manipulators are made from what the team calls “compliant materials”.

During an oceanographic research cruise in one of the most remote regions of the Pacific Ocean, the device showed great promise in safely interacting with sea organisms. Better yet, by using 3D printing, the researchers were able to manufacture the manipulators in real-time and even modify them to improve access to certain areas.

The research, conducted by Daniel Vogt of Harvard University and his colleagues, was published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

“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… 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,” the study explains.

Soft Robotics Make Successful Trip on Pacific Ocean Research Cruise

Last year, the research team went on an expedition to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. During this trip, Vogt and his colleagues designed and 3D printed the soft robotic manipulators before putting them to the test.

Amazingly, the manipulators were useful in sampling species that lived 2224m deep via a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). The ROV pilots and biologists are able to provide instantaneous feedback so that the team can redesign the soft manipulator to improve functionality.

For instance, one change that they made was to add fingernails to the gripping fingertips of the manipulator. By adding this element to the device, the manipulators were able to collect organisms such as sea cucumbers without damaging them.

“By 3D printing at sea, we can innovate on-the-fly and come up with soft robotics to interact with delicate animals that were previously unexamined as they were too fragile. Many of the animals we encounter in the deep-sea are new species and these soft robotics allow us to study a more diverse suite of fauna,” co-author David Gruber adds.

License: The text of "Researchers 3D Print Soft Robotic Manipulators to Investigate Fragile Deep-Sea Life" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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