Soft robotics and 3D printing allow marine biologists to explore delicate deep-sea life

Credit: Vogt et al., 2018, courtesy of Schmidt Ocean Institute

3D-printed soft robotic manipulators allowed scientists to investigate and interact with fragile deep-sea organisms during an oceanographic research cruise to one of the most remote regions of the Pacific Ocean, according to a study published August 1 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Daniel Vogt of Harvard University, and colleagues.

The deep sea environment presents unique technical challenges for marine biologists attempting to gain access to, interact with, and collect marine life for research. Typically, marine biologists use devices made of inflexible metals but, because these tools were designed primarily for energy or military applications, they are often not suitable for interacting with soft-bodied and highly fragile organisms that may be found in the deep sea. By contrast, soft manipulators constructed out of compliant materials instead of rigid elements have shown considerable promise in deep-sea marine biological applications. Moreover, 3D printing of soft robotic manipulators enables real-time manufacturing and modification of tools in highly remote areas where engineering scenarios may be difficult to predict in advance.

During a deep-sea expedition to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area from October 5 to November 2, 2017, Vogt and colleagues designed, 3D printed, and used soft robotic manipulators for sampling species down to 2224m via a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Based on instantaneous feedback from the ROV pilots and biologists, the team rapidly redesigned the soft manipulators by adding fingernails to the gripping fingertips. This modification enabled successful grasping of fragile animals such as sea cucumbers, which have historically been difficult to collect undamaged using rigid mechanical arms and suction samplers.

"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," say Vogt et al. "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."

Co-author David Gruber adds: "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."


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Citation: Vogt DM, Becker KP, Phillips BT, Graule MA, Rotjan RD, Shank TM, et al. (2018) Shipboard design and fabrication of custom 3D-printed soft robotic manipulators for the investigation of delicate deep-sea organisms. PLoS ONE 13(8): e0200386.

Funding: This work is supported by NOAA OER Grant # NA17OAR0110083 "Exploration of the Seamounts of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area" to RDR, EEC, TMS and DFG and Schmidt Ocean Institute Grant: "What is the Current State of the Deep-Sea Coral Ecosystem in the Phoenix Island Protected Area?" to EEC, RDR, TMS and DFG; NSF Instrument Development for Biological Research Award # 1556164 to RJW and #1556123 to DFG; the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative of the National Academy of Sciences under award #NAKFI DBS21 to RJW and DFG; and NFS Research Fellowship awarded to KPB (#DGE1144152). It is also supported by the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. We are grateful for the support from the National Geographic Society Innovation Challenge (Grant No.: SP 12-14) to RJW and DFG. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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