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Squishy fingers help scientists probe the watery depths

Wyss researcher Daniel Vogt tests out soft robotics on deep sea corals in the South Pacific

By Lindsay Brownell

(BOSTON) — As an engineer with degrees in Computer Science and Microengineering, Wyss researcher Daniel Vogt usually spends most of his time in his lab building and testing robots, surrounded by jumbles of cables, wires, bits of plastic, and circuit boards. But for the last month, he’s spent nearly every day in a room that resembles NASA ground control surrounded by marine biologists on a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, intently watching them use joysticks and buttons to maneuver a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) to harvest corals, crabs, and other sea life from the ocean floor.

Deep corals of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area: how Wyss Institute researchers are changing underwater exploration. Credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

This particular ROV’s robotic metal arm is holding the reason why Vogt is here: what looks like a large, floppy toy starfish made of blue and yellow foam. “Devices like this are extremely soft – you can compare them to rubber bands or gummy bears – and this allows them to grasp things that you wouldn’t be able to grasp with a hard device like the ROV gripper,” says Vogt, watching the TV screen as the “squishy fingers” gently close around a diaphanous bright pink sea cucumber and lift it off the sand. The biologists applaud as the fingers cradle the sea cucumber safely on its journey to the ROV’s collection box. “Nicely done,” Vogt says to the ROV operators.

The squishy fingers are made of a soft, flexible material that is more dexterous and gentle than ROVs’ conventional grippers. Credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

This shipful of scientists is the latest in a series of research voyages co-funded by NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research and the Schmidt Ocean Institute, a nonprofit founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt in 2009 to support high-risk marine exploration that expands humans’ understanding of our planet’s oceans. The Institute provides marine scientists access to the ship, Falkor, and expert technical shipboard support in exchange for a commitment to openly share and communicate the outcomes of their research. Vogt’s shipmates are studying the mysterious deep sea coral communities of the deep ocean, which live below 138 meters (450 feet) on seamounts which are mostly unexplored.

The best place to find those corals is the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), a smattering of tiny islands, atolls, coral reefs, and great swaths of their surrounding South Pacific ocean almost 3,000 miles from the nearest continent. PIPA is the largest (the size of California) and deepest (average water column depth of 4 km/2.5 mi) UNESCO World Heritage Site on Earth and, thanks to its designation as a Marine Protected Area in 2008, represents one of Earth’s last intact oceanic coral archipelago ecosystems. With over 500 species of reef fishes, 250 shallow coral species, and large numbers of sharks and other marine life, PIPA’s reefs resemble what a reef might have looked like a thousand years ago, before human activity began to severely affect oceanic communities. The team on board Falkor is conducting the first deep water biological surveys in PIPA, assessing what species of deep corals are present and any new, undescribed species, while also evaluating the effect of seawater acidification (caused by an increase in the amount of CO2 in the water) on deep coral ecosystems.

Falkor is equipped with both wet and dry lab spaces, the ROV SuBastian, echosounders, water sampling systems, and many other instruments to gather data about the ocean. Credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

The deep ocean is about as inhospitable to human life as outer space, so scientists largely rely on ROVs to be their eyes, legs, and hands underwater, controlling them remotely from the safety of the surface. Most ROVs used in deep-sea research were designed for use in the oil and gas industries and are built to accomplish tasks like lifting heavy weights, drilling into rock, and installing machinery. When it comes to plucking a sea cucumber off the ocean floor or snipping a piece off a delicate sea fan, however, existing ROVs are like bulls in a china shop, often crushing the samples they’re meant to be taking.

This problem led to a collaboration between Wyss Core Faculty member Rob Wood, Ph.D. and City University of New York (CUNY) marine biologist David Gruber, Ph.D. back in 2014 that produced the first version of the soft robotic “squishy fingers,” which were successfully tested in the Red Sea in 2015. PIPA offered a unique opportunity to test the squishy fingers in more extreme conditions and evaluate a series of improvements that Vogt and other members of Wood’s lab have been making to them, such as integrating sensors into the robots’ soft bodies. “The Phoenix Islands are very unexplored. We’re looking for new species of corals that nobody has ever seen anywhere else. We don’t know what our graspers will have to pick up on a given day, so it’s a great opportunity to see how they fare against different challenges in the field.”

Daniel Vogt holds the ‘squishy finger’ soft robots aboard Falkor. Credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

Vogt, ever the tinkerer, also brought with him something that the Red Sea voyage did not have on board: two off-the-shelf 3D printers. Taking feedback directly from the biologists and the ROV pilots about what the soft robot could and could not do, Vogt was able to print new components overnight and try them in the field the next day – something that rarely happens even on land. “It’s really a novel thing, to be able to iterate based on input in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with no lab in sight. We noticed, for example, that the samples we tried to grasp were often on rock instead of sand, making it difficult for the soft fingers to reach underneath the sample for a good grip. In the latest iteration of the gripper, ‘fingernails’ were added to improve grasping in these situations.” The ultimate goal of building better and better underwater soft robots is to be able to conduct research on samples underwater at their natural depth and temperature, rather than bringing them up to the surface, as this will paint a more accurate picture of what is happening out of sight in the world’s oceans.

PIPA may be somewhat insulated from the threats of warming oceans and pollution thanks to its remoteness and deep waters, but the people of Kiribati, the island nation that contains and administers PIPA, are not. The researchers visited the island of Kanton, population 25, a few days into their trip to meet the local people and learn about their lives in a country where dry land makes up less than 1% of its total area – a true oceanic nation. “The people were very nice, very welcoming. There is one ship that comes every six months to deliver supplies; everything else they get from the sea,” says Vogt (locals are allowed to fish for subsistence). “They’re also going to be one of the first nations affected by rising sea levels, because the highest point on the whole island is three meters (ten feet). They know that they live in a special place, but they’re preparing for the day when they’ll have to leave their home. The whole community has bought land on Fiji, where they’ll move once Kanton becomes uninhabitable.”

Daniel Vogt tests the squishy fingers on the forearm of CUNY biologist David Gruber, who spearheaded their development along with Wyss Faculty member Rob Wood. Credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

Research that brings scientists from different fields together to elucidate the world’s remaining unknowns and solve its toughest problems is gaining popularity, and may be the best chance humanity has to ensure its own survival. “One of the most eye-opening part of the trip has been interacting with people from different backgrounds and seeing the scientific challenges they face, which are very different from the challenges that the mechanical and electrical engineers I’m with most of the time have to solve,” says Vogt. “I’ve been amazed by the technology that’s on Falkor related to the ROV and all the scientific tools aboard. The ROV SuBastian is one-of-a-kind, with numerous tools, cameras and sensors aboard as well as an advanced underwater positioning system. It takes a lot of engineers to create and operate something like that, and then a lot of biologists to interpret the results and analyze the 400+ samples which were collected during the cruise.”

Vogt says he spent a lot of time listening to the biologists and the ROV pilots in order to modify the gripper’s design according to their feedback. The latest version of the gripper was fully designed and manufactured on the boat, and was used during the last dive to successfully sample a variety of sea creatures. He and Wood plan to write several papers detailing the results of his experiments in the coming months.

“We’re very excited that what started as a conversation between a roboticist and a marine biologist at a conference three years ago has blossomed into a project that solves a significant problem in the real world, and can aid researchers in understanding and preserving our oceans’ sea life,” says Wood.

Additional videos detailing Vogt’s voyage, including the ship’s log, can be found here.

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