Gentle robot hand nabs sea creatures in the deep ocean

Origami-inspired petals fold into a dodecahedron using a single motor, giving researchers unprecedented access to life in the deepest part of the ocean

We know surprisingly little about life in the deep ocean, one of the last unexplored realms on our planet.

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It's a problem of access. ROVs capable of deep ocean exploration have begun to open up this mysterious realm, but sea life is elusive and difficult to study in the field. Many deep sea creatures are soft-bodied, as they don't need hard shells to protect them from larger predators.

Catching these creatures typically means killing them.

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A robotic hand developed by researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and Radcliffe's Institute for Advanced Study may help.

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The hand is a folding, origami-inspired polyhedron. When a small creature is in range, the remotely-operated hand gently closes around it, capturing the animal in a temporary cell.

"We approach these animals as if they are works of art," says collaborating author David Gruber, a 2017-2018 Radcliffe Fellow, National Geographic Explorer, and Professor of Biology and Environmental Science at Baruch College, CUNY. "Would we cut pieces out of the Mona Lisa to study it? No, we'd use the most innovative tools available. These deep-sea organisms, some being thousands of years old, deserve to be treated with a similar gentleness when we're interacting with them."

Uniquely, the hand is operated by a single rotary motor. As the motor slowly turns, the jointed petals close together.

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The team recently got a chance to test the collector by mounting it on an underwater remotely-operated vehicle in Monterey, CA, where it operated it at depths of 500-700 meters. The team successfully nabbed soft organisms like squid and jellyfish, releasing them without harm.

The polyhedron follows other attempts from researchers at Harvard to use robots to study marine life without harming it, including a set of squishy robot fingers.