A recent partnership between Harvard University and Beihang University in China plunged into the relationship between sharks and remoras, or suckerfish. The result led to a new suction cup robot that could revolutionize marine biology. In addition to finding a new way to attach cameras and other data collection equipment to larger aquatic animals without hurting them, the new approach to suction could also be used for moving delicate objects.
The lead researcher on the project, Beihang's Li Wen, was researching the material characteristics of a 3D-printed shark skin while working at Harvard University. His research guided him to a picture of a shark in which a suckerfish was clinging to a shark as it swam through the ocean. Further examination suggested the need for a closer look at the suction disc that this animal used to latch onto the shark.
The ability to hold something in place under water has long been both a goal and a challenge for marine biologists and naval engineers. So after a closer examination of the suckerfish, Wen's team developed an artificial suction cup that incorporates 1,000 carbon fiber spikes or thorns that help it stay in place.
Testing showed that the new sucker was capable of withstanding forces equal to a shark's swimming speed of five feet/second. It can also latch onto a wide collection of materials, where to remove it requires the application of a force greater than 300 times its weight. The next step could involve testing the robotic gripper with a live shark or dolphin to validate its capabilities further and expand its application potential.