New Origami Robot Can Collect Sensitive Sea Creatures Without Harming Them

Possibly the most wholesome invention on planet Earth right now.

Deep in the pelagic midwaters of the ocean swim fragile, ethereal sea creatures. Many of them resemble some of the Earth’s earliest lifeforms, and have been floating around in relative obscurity — but not anymore.

That’s because engineers have successfully tested a 3D-printed capturing device, a folding 12-sided polyhedral container capable of slowly and safely enclosing these marine animals for study, without damaging them. The team, whose work was published today in the journal Science Robotics, hope to eventually outfit their device with camera equipment for high-definition 3D imaging of the species as well as DNA sampling equipment for full genomic analysis later on.

It’s a unique system for getting all of this valuable biological data unobtrusively, without having to capture, maim, or kill the aquatic specimen under study.

“When it comes to mid-water animals that are gelatanous,” Brennan Phillips, an assistant professor of ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island, tells Inverse, “they’re so delicate and there are so many species — hundreds, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands — that are undescribed simply because we can’t get our hands on them and bring them back up to the surface.”

Phillips says that marine biology spent much of the 70s and 80s focused on exploring life at the ocean’s deepest depths, along hydrothermal vents, for example, and elsewhere on the seafloor. Part of this was due to new deep diving technology, but there were also major hurdles to hunting for species in the spacious, sparsely populated void of the deep pelagic or midwater region.

“I, myself, have bore witness to this many times,” he said. “We’ve seen something very interesting and we just have to let it go by. We’re not gonna ever grab it and describe it, because we don’t have the tools available to do that.”

The best estimates by marine researchers suggest that up to a million species might remain undescribed in the deep pelagic zone. But “collecting them is a challenge” according to Andy Juhl, an aquatic ecologist and oceanographer with Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who was not involved in the new research.

“Nets are problematic; it’s sort of blind destructive sampling,” Juhl tells Inverse. “We certainly have learned a lot in — maybe — the last twenty years or so about organisms that live deeper in the water column, that are very fragile, and that otherwise come up as sort of mangled bits of protoplasm.”

Having seen people attempt to do this sort of collection literally with jars, manned subs, and remotely operated vehicles, Juhl thinks the device is a “novel solution to the problem.”

The device was initially concieved by mechanical engineer Zhi Ern Teoh, who studied at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering before joinging the technology development firm Cooper Perkins. Teoh came to the idea after a period of working on insect-scale flying microrobots whose designs also incorportated folding, origami-style elements.

One of his big hopes right now is that this technique might some day be useful in space exploration, where there may also be applications for this new sample collection device.

“That is one of my dreams,” Teoh says. “If I could design something that deploys in space — either deploys in space, or unfolds, or collects in space — that would be pretty cool.”

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