Submarines will soon have arms gentle enough to stroke a puppy

3 Oct 2018

The soft robotic arm has interchangeable modular units that enable it to flex and rotate in response to the hand movements of a human operator. Image: David Gruber/Baruch College

Engineers have found a way to equip submarines with soft robotic arms that are gentle enough to stroke a puppy’s fur.

Whether they’re used to explore the deepest depths of the ocean or as a platform for intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines tend to follow a similar enough design.

One thing that differs deep-sea submarines from others – especially those used to collect marine samples – is the inclusion of robotic arms to grab a hold of objects. However, existing arms are quite jerky and lack the ability to handle delicate objects such as jellyfish or octopuses, meaning they are limited in use.

Now though, a new breakthrough in the field of soft robotics by a team from the Wyss Institute at Harvard University has found a way to give submarines arms delicate and coordinated enough to gently stroke a puppy’s fur.

‘Like trying to pick up a napkin with a metal crab claw’

Publishing the findings in Scientific Reports, the scientists behind the arm design revealed a glove equipped with wireless soft sensors to control a modular soft robotic arm. This allows it to flex and move with unprecedented dexterity to grasp and sample delicate aquatic life.

It is envisioned that the new technology could one day allow for the creation of submarine-based research labs where sample analysis, currently only capable of being undertaken on land, can be done at the bottom of an ocean.

“The currently available subsea robotic arms work well for oil and gas exploration, but not for handling delicate marine life. Using them is like trying to pick up a napkin with a metal crab claw,” said the study’s co-author, David Gruber. “The glove control system allows us to have much more intuitive control over the soft robotic arm, like how we would move our own arms while scuba diving.”

The arm has been tested on a three-person submarine used to explore the deep-sea ecosystems of the Fernando de Noronha archipelago in Brazil and was able to collect delicate organisms such as a glass sponge and a sea cucumber.

Different modules were quickly and easily swapped into the arm in order to better manoeuvre the grippers to reach its target organism or in the case of any one module being damaged, without needing to dismantle the entire arm.

The next step of the research will be to refine the design to allow the incorporating of non-invasive DNA and RNA sampling systems as part of a larger underwater lab to allow for the safe capture and release of underwater life.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic