© The Author(s), 2018. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License. The definitive version was published in PLos One 13 (2018): e0200386, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0200386.
Soft robotics is an emerging technology that has shown considerable promise in deep-sea marine biological applications. It is particularly useful in facilitating delicate interactions with fragile marine organisms. This study describes the shipboard design, 3D printing and integration of custom soft robotic manipulators for investigating and interacting with deep-sea organisms. Soft robotics manipulators were tested down to 2224m via a Remotely-Operated Vehicle (ROV) in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) and facilitated the study of a diverse suite of soft-bodied and fragile marine life. Instantaneous feedback from the ROV pilots and biologists allowed for rapid re-design, such as adding “fingernails”, and re-fabrication of soft manipulators at sea. These were then used to successfully grasp fragile deep-sea animals, such as goniasterids and holothurians, which have historically been difficult to collect undamaged via rigid mechanical arms and suction samplers. As scientific expeditions to remote parts of the world are costly and lengthy to plan, on-the-fly soft robot actuator printing offers a real-time solution to better understand and interact with delicate deep-sea environments, soft-bodied, brittle, and otherwise fragile organisms. This also offers a less invasive means of interacting with slow-growing deep marine organisms, some of which can be up to 18,000 years old.
This work is supported by NOAA OER Grant # NA17OAR0110083 “Exploration of the Seamounts of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area” to RDR, EEC, TMS and DFG and Schmidt Ocean Institute Grant: “What is the Current State of the Deep-Sea Coral Ecosystem in the Phoenix Island Protected Area?” to EEC, RDR, TMS and DFG; NSF Instrument Development for Biological Research Award # 1556164 to RJW and #1556123 to DFG; the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative of the National Academy of Sciences under award #NAKFI DBS21 to RJW and DFG; and NFS Research Fellowship awarded to KPB (#DGE1144152). It is also supported by the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. We are grateful for the support from the National Geographic Society Innovation Challenge (Grant No.: SP 12-14) to RJW and DFG.
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