It is 1 a.m. on a summer night, 1,000 meters below the surface of the South Pacific. A submarine is hovering above the ocean floor, its rough grippers trying to collect a delicate anemone sample. After many attempts, the submarine leaves.
The submarine was occupied by Baruch’s own marine biologist and an Emerging Explorer—title awarded by National Geographic—named David Gruber, Ph.D. The hard robotic hands that the submarine was equipped with were ill-suited to collect fragile samples. The issue is not unknown to scientists. According to National Geographic, deep sea corals are generally out of divers’ reach—humans cannot dive below 100 meters, and deep reefs are generally located below that point. This means that scientists will often resort to using remotely operated vehicles whose arms are simply too powerful to handle samples without damaging them.
Now, fast-forward to 2014. Gruber is presenting his research at the National Geographic’s Explorers Week Symposium.
“One of my videos showed my use of rigid robotic devices to collect delicate biological samples—and it was doing a clumsy job at it,” Gruber recalled. “Prof. Rob Wood was in the audience—he is also an Emerging Explorer at National Geographic—and little did I know that he is a rock-star in the delicate robotics world.”
Robert J. Wood is a Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Studies in the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Studies. He is also one of the 14 founding core faculty members of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, which, according to its website, works to develop “bioinspired materials” and technology that would transform the field of medicine and lead to increased sustainability.
According to the Wyss Institute’s website, Wood currently leads a team of more than 40 researchers in an effort to create robotic bees that could autonomously perform tasks including search and rescue missions, environment exploration and pollination. With previous experience in the field, the gears in Wood’s brain began working and he approached Gruber soon after his presentation ended.
“Rob approached me afterward and peppered me with a series of questions about my rigid underwater robotic arms,” Gruber recalled. “He then asked me if I ever thought of using soft or ‘squishy’ robotics. I told him I had not heard of any marine biologists using this technology underwater. And this is how our fruitful collaboration began.”
The collaboration between Gruber, Wood, Kevin Galloway, Ph.D. and Kaitlyn Becker was partially supported by the National Geographic Innovation Challenge Grant, which is awarded to collaborations between two or more National Geographic Society Explorers.
Because of the nature of the job—the researchers did not have any specifications on hand that could aid their research—it took 50 prototypes before the team got to the right one. Each prototype would be tested by dropping vegetables tied to a grate into a water tank and using the prototypes to see if they could pick up the vegetables without damaging them in the process. Thus, the squishy robot fingers were born. The team would later begin working on full squishy robot arms.
According to a National Geographic interview with Wood, the robot fingers are made of a composite consisting of silicone rubber, fiberglass and Kevlar fibers. In order to close the robot’s fingers, the scientists pressurize them with seawater.
In May 2015, the team was ready to test the squishy robot fingers at the Gulf of Eliat located in the northern Red Sea. The area is recognized as one of the most diverse marine environments found on the planet, with thousands of species of fish and corals, and thus the perfect area to test the device.
Unsurprisingly, the tests proved successful, and Gruber described the experience as “eye-opening.”
“As soon as I saw the squishy robot fingers working underwater, I could see the magnificent potential they hold,” Gruber elaborated. “This was only the first test and they performed swimmingly.”
According to the National Geographic interview with Wood, the robotic arms have worked flawlessly at 150 meters below sea level, though they were tested as far as 800 meters below.
Because of their low costs—Gruber claims that materials cost just a few dollars—squishy robot fingers are an easily accessible invention that can aid researchers who work on limited budgets. The squishy robot fingers can also be used in other fields, such as medicine and archeology, where gentleness can be of utmost importance.
More importantly, the researchers can now explore possibilities that were previously deemed unavailable simply because the right robotic grippers were not yet invented.
One such area is the Red Sea. Because of its vastness and rich environment, its deeper parts are still largely unexplored. With the creation of the squishy robot fingers, there is a much higher chance that researchers will be able to visit these areas and collect fragile specimen—such as the aforementioned anemone—without fear that it would be destroyed in the process.
“Some of the deep-sea corals are incredibly fragile, so it is like working in an elaborate porcelain jungle,” Gruber explained. “The growth rates of some animals in the deep are wildly slow; a small coral we encounter may actually be hundreds of years old. We know so little about the biology of deep-sea animals and it is important to be as elegant as possible as we learn their biological secrets.”
When Gruber is not discovering new biofluorescent species or creating new technology to aid research, he teaches science courses at Baruch College.
“I chose Baruch College because of its incredibly diverse andmotivated student body,” Gruber admitted. “It is also an alluring challenge [to] help build up a Natural Science department at [a] college in the epicenter of NYC with a strong business school. There are many connections to explore at the elegant intersection of science or innovation and sustainability.”
After returning from teaching in Cuba, Gruber teaches the Macaulay Honors Seminar, Science and Technology in New York City, Environmental Science and Microbial Ecology.