Soft Robotic Arm Allows Scientists to Explore Delicate Marine Life at Great Depths

Professor David F. Gruber (GC/Baruch, Biology), a marine biologist who previously helped develop an ‘origami’ robotic claw to study jellyfish, is part of a research team that unveiled a new invention this week: a soft robotic arm designed for use in the deep sea.

A soft robotic arm, developed by a team of scientists including Professor David Gruber, reaches for a deep-sea sponge.
A soft robotic arm, developed by a team of scientists including Professor David Gruber (GC/Baruch, Biology), reaches for a deep-sea sponge. Photo credit: David Gruber

Like the origami claw, the soft robotic arm is intended to help scientists study delicate organisms that can be harmed — or even destroyed — when handled by traditional means, which until recently have been mostly limited to industrial robotic arms, claws, and suction samplers.
 
The soft robotic arm can be operated below 150 meters, beyond the range of SCUBA divers. Scientists will operate it remotely using a wearable glove. A study describing the first test of the arm, conducted from a submarine in Brazil, appeared last week in Nature’s Scientific Reports. Gruber served as the biologist on the team. The lead author was Brennan T. Phillips of the University of Rhode Island.
 
The robotic arm is already in use, Gruber said. “The project started with ‘Squishy Robot Fingers’ and has since evolved into this glove-operated ‘Squishy Robot Arm,’” he said. “The intention is add something as agile and soft as human arms to a submarine, allowing a  marine biologist to delicately interact with deep-sea marine life.” 
 
The deep sea is the least explored biome on the planet, the authors note in the study. “Humans have only been exploring the deep sea for several decades,” Gruber said. “But in that short time we have learned that it is just as fragile, or more so, than shallow systems like coral reefs. Some marine creatures are estimated to be up to 18,000 years old and we want to examine them with utmost care.”
 
Gruber hopes that scientists will ultimately be able to set up sub-sea laboratories and perform similar experiments, using the squishy robot arms, to those that can be conducted in land-based laboratories. With his co-researchers, he is continuing to work on projects that demonstrate how technology can connect us more deeply — and empathetically — to life in the deep sea.  
 
“We are planning to apply these new technologies to look at a diverse suite of biological aspects of deep-sea marine life, such as aging,” Gruber said. “It is very interesting to us how some deep-sea marine life can live for thousands of years. In the future, we aim to use these novel robotic devices to perform in-situ studies of deep-marine life that ultimately leaves them unharmed.”

Submitted on: OCT 9, 2018

Category: Biology | Faculty | General GC News