As anyone knows who has tried—and failed—to pluck a stuffed animal from the pile in those popular arcade games, using a mechanical hand is tough. It’s even tougher when the prey isn’t a plush toy, but a living creature. Now, scientists studying the deep sea have built an underwater robot that can gently scoop up delicate fish, squid, and even jellyfish, with a folding container inspired by the Japanese art of origami.
To create a robot hardy enough to work reliably in the open ocean, yet flexible enough to scoop up fast-moving animals, the scientists wanted to simplify their design and reduce the number of moving parts. With the origami design, only one motor is needed to fold five identical 3D-printed “petals” that are attached to flexible joints into a 12-sided box.
The team used the new box to capture and release moon jellyfish in an aquarium and squid and Stellamedusa jellyfish in the open ocean at depths of 500 to 700 meters. In the ocean, scientists mounted the joystick-controlled arm to a remotely operated vehicle. The joystick operator used a video feed to make sure the animal didn’t get squished during the folding. That’s good news for deep-sea creatures that are too delicate or gelatinous to be caught with traditional techniques such as nets and suction samplers, the researchers report today in Science Robotics.
In the future, the scientists hope to attach sensors to the device so it can serve as a mini–underwater lab that would let researchers examine animals without having to remove them from their environment. They say their folding robot might one day even be used in space—for example, to attach solar panels to satellites. But for now, the robot will help scientists investigate the deep ocean, the largest and least explored environment on Earth.