The open ocean is the largest and least-explored environment on Earth. It is estimated to hold up to a million species that have yet to be described. However, many of those organisms — like jellyfish, squid, and octopuses — are soft-bodied and difficult to capture for study with existing underwater tools, which too frequently damage or destroy them.
Now, a new device developed by researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study safely traps delicate sea creatures inside a folding polyhedral enclosure and lets them go without harm using a novel, origami-inspired design. The research is reported in Science Robotics.
“We approach these animals as if they are works of art: Would we cut pieces out of the ‘Mona Lisa’ to study it? No — we’d use the most innovative tools available. These deep-sea organisms, some being thousands of years old, deserve to be treated with a similar gentleness when we’re interacting with them,” said collaborating author David Gruber, who is a 2017‒2018 Radcliffe Fellow, National Geographic Explorer, and professor of biology and environmental science at Baruch College, CUNY.
The idea to apply folding properties to underwater sample collection began in 2014 when first author Zhi Ern Teoh took a class from Chuck Hoberman, a Wyss associate faculty member and Pierce Anderson Lecturer in Design Engineering at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, about creating folding mechanisms through computational means. “I was building microrobots by hand in graduate school, which was very painstaking and tedious work, and I wondered if there was a way to fold a flat surface into a 3-D shape using a motor instead,” said Teoh, a former postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute in the lab of Robert Wood; he is now an engineer at Cooper Perkins.