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Soft Robotic Actuators in the Deep Sea

2017 - 2019

Video: Max Rousseau, Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard University


Fragile marine organisms -- such as jellyfish and siphonophores -- are of interest to physicians, researchers, and engineers due to their unique genomic capabilities and their position in the deep sea ecosystem. Despite capabilities such as life cycle reversal and green fluorescent protein, these organisms have been dubbed "the forgotten fauna" due to the challenges inherent in studying them. Gentle grasping devices are required to safely interact with gelatinous organisms in a marine environment. 



We have developed a soft robotic gripper that is gentle enough to nondestructively grasp delicate marine organisms while being robust enough to operate in the ocean environment.  Our device contains several actuator "fingers," each of which is composed of an elastic (yet tough) silicone rubber matrix and a flexible polymer nanofiber layer. The lightweight strain-limiting nanofiber layer directs the motion of each finger and increases the grip strength of the device without adding additional bulk. 

These soft actuators have an unprecedented capability for delicate manipulation of fragile tissue samples. We have shown that:

  • Our device exerts lower pressure than the current best-in-class soft robotic marine gripper, thus facilitating interaction with gelatinous animals.

  • The gripper's robustness to external organisms is large enough to prevent organisms from being released after they are grasped.

  • The soft robotic gripper's performance was validated through a preliminary field test at the New England Aquarium using three canonical jellyfish species. The jellyfish displayed no adverse effects or behavior changes following the gentle "hug" by the grasper. 


This project was published in Science Robotics


Image: Anand Varma

Gentle Grasping | Soft robotic actuators are pressurized pneumatically using an internal channel along the length of each "finger." As the actuators inflate, they gentle encircle a target animal (here, a moon jellyfish) without applying harmful pressure.

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