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Squishy Robot Fingers Collect Deep-Sea Coral

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Squishy robotic hands gather deep-sea coral samples more gently than robotic arms, and in places human divers can’t reach. (Photo credit: National Geographic)

Scientists studying deep-sea coral need to collect countless samples in order to examine DNA and other characteristics. These researchers have serious challenges. The animals grow too deep for human divers to reach, and while remotely operated vehicles can venture deep enough, most robotic arms are too powerful and clumsy to harvest the coral samples without causing damage to the delicate coral or the reefs.

To date, researchers have had to rely on clunky, rigid ROVs originally developed for the oil and gas industries. These vehicles’ stiff arms were made to do heavy work, such as turning pipes off and on, rather than the delicate work of coral harvesting.

Enter two National Geographic Emerging Explorers with a brilliant solution. Marine biologist David Gruber (an associate professor of  biology at Baruch College in New York City) and roboticist Robert Wood  (a professor of engineering and applied sciences at Harvard University), have teamed up to create robots with a softer touch: Squishy Fingers. Their squishy robotic hands gather coral samples more delicately than robotic arms, and in places humans can’t reach. While by all appearances Squishy Fingers is an automated hand, it’s actually a remotely operated vehicle. A squishy ROV.

According to Gruber, “Sometimes you need to take one sample, or even get things like a vein biopsy sample in order to sequence its genome.” The specimens collected by these squishy ROVs will help researchers study the genomes and proteins of mysterious underwater plants and animals, as well as identify new species.

Developed with support from a National Geographic Innovation Challenge Grant, the hands were first tested in tanks in March 2015 and then taken to the Red Sea for trials later that year. With the success of this expedition, Wood and Gruber hope the technology will have broader applications: underwater applications such as archaeological digs, and above-water applications, such as agriculture and biological sampling.

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