Researchers 3D Print Soft Grippers to Safely Sample Sea Life


Researchers from Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) created a soft and flexible sampling device using 3D-printer that interacts with delicate marine life gently.

Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) laced with specialized equipment are used to study marine life. However, ROVs designed primarily for the underwater oil and mining industries are clunky, expensive, and difficult to maneuver and cause difficulty in interacting with delicate sea life. Now, a research led by SEAS in collaboration with Wyss Institute developed a device that is soft, flexible, and customizable and allows to gently grab different types of organisms from the sea without causing damage to the organism. Moreover, the device can be 3D-printed with required modifications on board the ship. The research was published in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS One on August 1, 2018.

The device with soft grippers comprises anywhere from two to five fingers made of polyurethane and other squishy materials. These fingers open and close via a low-pressure hydraulic pump system that uses seawater to drive their movement. The device also simply known as grippers, are attached to a wooden ball that is held and manipulated using an ROV. The prototype of the soft grippers was built on a voyage aboard R/V Falkor in the remote Phoenix Islands Protected Area in the South Pacific. The island is an isolated environment and obtaining new parts for the grippers in such area was nearly impossible, owing to which the team utilized two 3D printers for creating new components required for the new device.

The soft grippers were able to effectively grab sea slugs, corals, sponges, and other marine life. Moreover, the damage caused to the organisms was less compared to traditional underwater sampling tools. The ROV operates on-board the ship provided inputs to 3D-print the fingernail extensions that could be fixed to the gripper’s fingers. These fingernails assisted the grippers to get underneath samples situated on hard surfaces. Moreover, a flexible mesh added to each finger assisted in keeping the samples contained within the fingers’ grip. A two-fingered version of the grippers was created for small objects.



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