Harvard roboticist gives researchers a hand for deep sea exploration

Working with a biologist, Robert Wood developed “squishy’’ robotic fingers to help collect specimens from the deep.

Extra grippers were on hand during a field expedition to the Red Sea.
Extra grippers were on hand during a field expedition to the Red Sea. –Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Robert Wood watched a video of a solid robotic arm collecting fragile pieces of coral and sponges from the ocean floor and had an idea: Applying “squishy’’ robotic fingers to the arm would improve the collection of delicate specimens.

Wood, who is a professor at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a faculty member at the university’s Wyss Institute, approached the marine biologist, David Gruber, of Baruch College, who was showing the video at an event on emerging explorers by the National Geographic Society, according to the Wyss Institute.

The roboticist and biologist worked together to develop two types of soft grippers to replace the standard metal grippers on remote operated underwater vehicles that would be capable of retrieving specimens of different sizes and shapes.


The lack of precise specifications of what the robotic hand would be grabbing proved the biggest challenge in the design, according to Wyss. So the team went to the produce aisle to get an assortment of vegetables — including celery, carrots, and bok choy — to test a sampling of the size, shapes, and stiffness the robotic fingers could encounter on the ocean floor.

The pair developed one gripper with soft opposing pairs of actuators and another, inspired by the movements of a boa constrictor, that can clutch small and irregular shaped objects. They successfully tested them at depths under 200 meters last May in Israel’s Gulf of Eilat in the northern part of the Red Sea.

Next, according to the institute, Wood wants to pursue enhancements to the robot — like the ability to let an operator “feel’’ what the gripper is touching, rather than just relying on a live video feed. The goal is also for the device to conduct work in the “unexplored worlds’’ — 6,000 meters below the ocean surface.

Watch the grippers at work here:

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