This Soft Robotic Arm Allows Exploring the Delicate Sea Life Without Any Harm

The robotic arm and soft robotic grippers inspired from human hands can safely grasp and sample fragile sea creatures.
Kashyap Vyas

The ocean as we know it is far more diverse than we think! When categorizing oceans by depth, we have the ocean and deep ocean.

What we call “ocean” is only the top layer of water where we can see things, thanks to the sunlight. But deep ocean is another world altogether.

It’s dark, deep and carries monumental pressure. However, life surprises us again as there are many organisms that take the deep ocean as their home.

Delicate organisms need extra care in handling

We humans often have a tough time studying these organisms, because we can’t approach the deep ocean in a diving suit. Special Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) are constructed for this purpose, but these again pose a threat to damage the extremely fragile sea creatures.

We often use specialized mechanical grippers to interact and take samples from the dark world. But using mechanical grippers to handle delicate lifeforms just doesn’t work.

The scientists at the Wyss Institute, Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Baruch College, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study found a solution to this by developing a robotic gripper that is soft and flexible, making it easier for it to grab samples of ocean life without compromising it.

However, the device still had to rely on hard robotic arms with limited maneuver capability. But, scientists from the Wyss Institute, Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Baruch College, and the University of Rhode Island (URI) have developed a new system to overcome this challenge.

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They have essentially developed a modular robotic arm equipped with sensors, which can move with flexibility and finesse to grasp and sample the delicate creatures.

“This new soft robotic arm replaces the hard, rigid arms that come standard on most submersibles, enabling our soft robotic grippers to reach and interact with sea life with much greater ease across a variety of environments and allowing us to explore parts of the ocean that are currently understudied,” said first author Brennan Phillips, an assistant professor at URI.

Features of the new soft robotic arm and gripper system

The soft robotic arm developed by the scientists consists of various bending, rotary and gripping modules that can be configured according to the movement requirements. The system also has a compact hydraulic control mechanism, which allows deployment in remote and harsh environments.

The system is equally efficient in terms of power requirements and is ideal to be used along with manned undersea vehicles with limited battery capacity.

Soft Robotic Arms for Exploring Delicate Sea Life
Source: Brennan Phillips/Wyss Institute

The control arm can be operated wirelessly by wearing a sensor-equipped glove. While the arm can be controlled by moving the wrist, curling the index finger controls the grippers.


Utilizing different types of soft grippers, scientists can then interact and examine the creatures without harming them.

This innovative robotic arm and gripper system was field tested in the deep-sea ecosystems of the Fernando de Noronha archipelago in Brazil. Scientists were able to collect various types of fragile deep-sea organisms with the required delicacy.

Scientists are now working on adding more features to this system and are incorporating noninvasive DNA and RNA sampling capabilities within the actuating units of the control arm. Their goal is to grasp the fragile sea creatures, perform experiment underwater and release them without any harm.