Deep sea scientists have a longstanding problem: studying a soft, spineless creature without damaging it beyond recognition. Now they have a new solution: origami-inspired robots with a soft touch.
In research published today in Science Robotics, a Harvard-led team presented the initial results from testing the “Self-folding polyhedra.” This robot slowly closes in on a target like a jellyfish and tries to surround it with a soft enclosure. The walls of the device are soft enough as not to burst the jellyfish. The actuators are lined with silicon to create another soft surface to preserve the precious cargo.
Lead author Zhi Ern Teoh of Harvard had been working on the idea of using two-dimensional shapes to build three-dimensional objects. His first results were too painstaking to assemble. He wanted something that could be put together easily—perhaps fabricated all at once, or at least in as few steps as possible.
“It was such a painstaking process, so that led me to ways to think about making 3D shapes from 2D sheets using minimal actuators,” Teoh says.
A presentation to a group of engineers led to a breakthough. After the talk, paper co-author Brennan Phillips of the University of Rhode Island approached Teoh and asked him to scale up his tiny origami robot to 20 to 30 times the presented size.
Brennan wanted something that could wrap around an average jellyfish without creating too much pressure, which might burst the poor creatures. While nets can easily trap crustaceans, fish, and more durable mollusks, they can damage more amorphous and vulnerable creatures found in the deep. But by closing in slowly around the target, without creating too much of a water pressure differential, the origami bot lets marine biologists more easily grab a specimen.
This paper marks a successful demonstration of the technology, which the researchers had some concern about going in. “We weren’t sure if the sampler was going to work with a soft sea creature,” Teoh says. “As the polyhedron closes, we were afraid the expelled water would push jellyfish away.”
Now Teoh and colleagues can work on other improvements they want to incorporate. For instance, they want to install sensors, including a camera in each side of a polyhedron so it can capture a 3D model of the sea creature and then release the organism back into the ocean, all without having to retrieve it. “You can potentially get 3d imagery of whatever sample you have in the grab zone,” Teoh says. There’s also talks of ways to use it to get DNA samples.
Teoh also wants to make it a little bit more modular—partly so that parts can be easily replaced without sacrificing the simplicity of the technology. There are also other applications, beyond marine research. For instance, Teoh can see the shape being used in aerospace research as a deployable solar panel for future spacecraft.