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Device Enables Easy Capture and Release of Delicate Sea Creatures
August 16, 2018

A new device developed by a University of Rhode Island (URI) engineer and researchers at Harvard University safely traps delicate sea creatures inside a folding polyhedral enclosure and lets them go without harm using a novel, origami-inspired design.

The research was reported recently in the journal Science Robotics.

According to Brennan Phillips, URI assistant professor of ocean engineering, “origami robotics” is a hot topic among researchers, though most work is currently conducted in a laboratory and is rarely demonstrated for real-world applications. Not so with what he calls an encapsulation device.

“It isn’t very good at bringing a whole animal back up to the surface, but it can surround a delicate animal very quickly without harming it,” he said. “We envision outfitting a next-generation device with cameras, sensors, and a way to collect small tissue samples for genetic work.

“Our ultimate goal is to make a device that can help describe new species in the deep sea without actually bringing them back up,” Prof. Phillips said. “There are literally thousands of species of gelatinous animals that remain undescribed in the deep sea simply because there is no good way to bring them to the surface intact.”

The idea to apply folding properties to underwater sample collection began in 2014 when Harvard graduate student Zhi Ern Teoh took a class about creating folding mechanisms through computational means.

The device that Phillips and Teoh built consists of five identical 3D-printed polymer “petals” attached to a series of rotating joints that are linked together to form a scaffold. When a single motor applies a torque to the point where the petals meet, it causes the entire structure to rotate about its joints and fold up into a hollow dodecahedron (like a twelve-sided, almost-round box), earning it the name of Rotary Actuated Dodecahedron (RAD).

According to information, the researchers tested the RAD sampler at Mystic Aquarium and successfully collected and released moon jellyfish underwater. After making modifications to the sampler so it could withstand open ocean conditions, they then mounted it on an underwater remotely-operated vehicle provided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. It was tested in the ocean at depths of 1,600 to 2,300 feet using the vehicle’s manipulator arm and human-controlled joystick to operate the device. The team was able to capture soft organisms like squid and jellyfish within their natural habitats and release them without harm.

The scientists said that the folding design of the RAD sampler makes it well-suited for use in space, which is similar to the deep ocean in that it’s a low-gravity, inhospitable environment that makes operating any device challenging.

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences.

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