This 3D-printed origami trap captures delicate sea life without hurting them

Calling someone "without thorns" is an insult to the land, but in the ocean it is simply a sensible lifestyle choice. From jellyfish to octopus, anemones to sea cucumbers, life under the waves is full of soft invertebrates. But while these soft bodies adapt perfectly to the overwhelming pressures of the ocean, they present a problem for scientists who hope to study them. How do you recover those delicate organisms without damaging them?

One answer could be in the Japanese art of origami. Inspired by traditional paper folding techniques, marine engineers and biologists have designed a 12-sided 3D printed origami trap that can be folded gently around unsuspecting sea creatures. The device (known as the rotationally powered dodecahedron, or RAD, for its acronym in English) can be connected to the arm of a submarine rover and fired remotely to capture the marine life soft safely.

The device has already been successfully tested, trapping small squid, octopus and jellyfish at a depth of 700 meters in the ocean. But its design is robust enough to work at depths of up to 11 kilometers, and could easily be extended to target larger organisms.

David Gruber, a marine biologist who helped design RAD, told him The Verge that a new technology like this is key to exploring the ocean. From the 1920s, attempts to study marine life were based on networks that managed to cross the seas in search of species of hard bodies such as fish and crustaceans. However, they were indiscriminate in what they captured and crushed gelatinous life forms. New devices, such as suction samplers (which aspirate samples from remote rovers) can point to a specific organism, but can still damage delicate life forms.


Still images showing the capture of three different types of soft-bodied marine life using RAD.
Image: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

This means that the study of soft-bodied creatures such as jellyfish, comb jellies, and tunicates has been "neglected," says Gruber. They are even known as the "forgotten wildlife" for this reason. Gruber says that with the help of new technology, we are just beginning to understand the vital role these creatures play in the ocean ecosystem. "Worldwide, it is estimated that gelatinous zooplankton constitutes a biomass of more than 38 billion kilograms of carbon," he says. That's roughly 7 percent of the world's total biomass (the dry weight of living organisms), or more than 100 times the total biomass of mankind.

However, designing the RAD was not easy, and the device is full of small but important design touches. For example, there are gaps between the panels of the dodecahedron in order to prevent pressure from accumulating inside when the marine explorer makes the trip from the ocean floor to the surface. The edges of these panels are also softer than the durable plastic of the main body. (This decision was made so that the device does not accidentally amputate the sea creatures struggling to get out)

But according to Harvard University mechanical engineer Zhi Ern Teoh, the key challenge was to get origami to develop using only a single engine. Doing so means that the entire system has fewer points of failure and can be folded and deployed with a single command. But that meant that Teoh and his colleagues had to design a complex series of links that connect each of the 12 panels of the device with the central engine. These had to be light enough to not force the engine and be sturdy enough not to break in mid-mission.


The lead author of the investigation, Zhi Ern Teoh, inspects the RAD when it is connected to an underwater rover (left) and a close-up of the RAD, bent (right).
Photo by Kaitlyn Becker / Wyss Institute at Harvard

This origami device is just one of the methods being explored for the capture of soft-bodied marine life. Other scientists have experimented with robotic hands made with cramp fingers that are perfect for grabbing the coral. But one big advantage of this new design, say Teoh and Gruber, is its modification potential.

As mentioned above, the basic mechanism of origami could be extended to almost any size, allowing it to capture larger species. (Teoh says a human-sized version could be used even for self-built habitats in space exploration.) While RAD is currently operated manually, it could also become an automatic trap with lures to attract sea creatures and sensors to detect when They are in the correct position to be caught.

Gruber is even more ambitious. "I see this as a platform technology that we hope will continue to evolve," he says. "The dream is to enclose delicate deep-sea animals, take 3D images that include properties such as hardness, 3D print that animal on the surface and also have a" toothbrush "that tickles the organism to get his full genome, then we would release him "

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