Deep under the ocean, there dwells an alien world. Given the vastness of the largest reservoir of water, marine life is the most and least explored ecosystem on the earth. Besides studying the underwater life in the labs, marine biologists are often exploring the underwater tools to capture the delicate ocean creatures comprising jellyfish, squid, and octopuses. These soft-bodied deep-sea organisms frequently slip out of the trapping tool or get harmed by them.

To the relief of marine biology community, a team of researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study has developed a new folding marine robot that gently catches delicate ocean creatures. The research paper is published in Science Robotics.

“We approach these animals as if they are works of art: would we cut pieces out of the Mona Lisa to study it? No – we’d use the most innovative tools available,” said co-author David Gruber, Ph.D., 2017-2018 Radcliffe Fellow, National Geographic Explorer, and Professor of Biology and Environmental Science at Baruch College, CUNY.

RAD – The Marine Robot

There is an interesting story behind the invention of the marine robot. As a part of Design Engineering at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2014, Zhi Ern Teoh, now Ph.D. started building micro-robots using hand skills under the guidance of Robert Wood, a Founding Core Faculty member of the Wyss Institute, the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS, and National Geographic Explorer. It was an extremely painstaking and tiresome task and this made him pondered over a better method to accomplish it. He, then, came up with a folding mechanism concept- a technique originally inspired from Origami art – wherein he thought to fold a flat surface into a 3D shape using a motor.

A fellow member of the Wood’sLab during that time, Brennan Phillips, now Ph.D. saw the design and suggested Teoh to recreate the machine for capturing delicate sea life as the existing underwater tools are constructed for rough purposes such as mining and construction.

Following the lead, Teoh designed a device consisting of five identical 3D-printed polymer tentacles that are connected to an array of rotating joints, which they are linked together to form a scaffold. The device rotates at its joints and folds up into a hollow dodecahedron when a motor accelerates a torque at the meeting point of tentacles. The device eventually forms a structure of a twelve-sided round box, like an underwater poke ball, recording it the name of Rotary Actuated Dodecahedron (RAD). The folding is entirely led by the architecture of the joints and the shape of the tentacles themselves; no other external push is needed.

Testing RAD Sampler

For pilot testing, the team employed a RAD sampler at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn., where it successfully captured and released moon jellyfish under the water.

Subsequently, the team made few modifications in the marine robot and mounted it on an underwater remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) to validate its application in the real-life deep world. The team controlled the operations of RAD sampler floating at depths of 500-700 m using a joystick. There it trapped soft creatures like squid and jellyfish and release them in their natural habitat.

Combined Achievement

“Collaboration across disciplines is a defining feature of the Wyss Institute, and this work exemplifies how new innovations can emerge when scientists from vastly different fields start communicating with each other,” mentioned Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., the Founding Director of the Wyss Institute.

Presently, Teoh and Phillips are focusing on developing a stronger version of the RAD sampler so that it could be employed for heavier-duty underwater operations like marine geology. On the other side, Gruber and Wood are working on further refining the sampler’s intricate abilities such as integrating cameras and sensors into the sampler. This will enable marine researchers to an aqua organism, gather a lot of data about it like physical properties and genome, and then relieve it go.