Squishy Materials and 3D Printing Improve Aquatic Robotics


The quest to make robots more human continues. This time, it’s work being done at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Baruch College, and the University of Rhode Island.

Underwater robotic arms were initially developed for repairing offshore oil and gas rigs. In attempting to utilize the same robotic technology for collecting marine samples, scientists quickly learned that the arms were too machine-like, and didn’t provide the softer touch and dexterity needed to delicately collect fish, plants, and other organisms without damaging them.

The engineering team’s solution is a collection of soft, robotic grippers that are wirelessly controlled by a sensor-laden glove. Worn by a scientist inside the submarine, this controller provides more intuitive control.

The system makes specimen collection more comparable to a diver than a robot but allows for operating at depths unsafe for humans. The glove wearer controls the robotic arm by moving their wrist, and the grippers by curling their index finger. The soft grippers have two to five fingers made of polyurethane and other materials and use a low-pressure hydraulic pump to channel seawater in opening and closing the gripper.

The team also 3D-printed fingernail extensions for getting underneath samples, and a flexible mesh was added to each finger to keep samples contained within their grip. A collection of different grippers were constructed to mesh with the job at hand.

In addition to marine biology, the system could also be the first step towards the creation of submarine-based research labs where all the work typically performed in a lab on shore could be done at the bottom of the ocean. Applications could also extend to the medical device sector.

The lighter weight grippers and wireless controls provide the added benefit of requiring less than half the power of the smallest underwater robotic arm. The team is also working to refine their designs and incorporate DNA sampling capabilities.

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