Wyss Institute leverages 3D printing to study Earth’s “forgotten fauna”

A 3D printed claw developed at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University is giving biologists a tool for finally understanding soft creatures that live at the bottom of the sea.

“The dream is to enclose delicate deep-sea animals, take 3D imagery that includes properties like hardness, 3D-print that animal at the surface, and also have a ‘toothbrush’ tickle the organism to obtain its full genome,” explains Harvard University marine biologist David Gruber in an interview for The Verge, “Then, we’d release it.”

This research could yield discoveries that lead to more bioinspired designs for everything from electronic devices through to airplane parts, and make valuable contributions to the growing field of soft robotics.

An underwater pokéball

Wyss’s claw device is called the RAD – a Rotary Actuated Dodecahedron. Described as an “underwater pokéball,” the RAD has been designed using the principles of origami. In doing so, the team have minimized the moving parts of the device, relying on a single motor to open and close the arms.

The entire device was 3D printed in translucent VEROCLEAR RGD810 polymer on a Stratasys Connex500 PolyJet 3D printer. Thinner edges on the RAD ensure that the device applies a soft-touch to the creatures it captures, avoiding any risk of accidental harm.

“We approach these animals as if they are works of art,” adds Gruber, “Would we cut pieces out of the ‘Mona Lisa’ to study it? No — we’d use the most innovative tools available,”

“These deep-sea organisms, some being thousands of years old, deserve to be treated with a similar gentleness when we’re interacting with them.”

Attached to a ROV, the RAD frees a moon jellyfish after sampling. Photo via Wyss Institute
Attached to a ROV, the RAD frees a moon jellyfish after sampling. Photo via Wyss Institute

Inspired engineering

A delicate approach to the study of deep sea creatures has been desperately needed for sometime. Alternative methods include the use of trawler nets, indiscriminately picking up a vast amount of sea creatures with potential damage to the sea floor and its inhabitants. The difficulty of obtaining soft bodied sea creatures like squids and jellyfish has earned the organisms the name “forgotten fauna.” But the Wyss mehtod hopes to change that.

Next, the team plans to add cameras and sensors to the RAD so they can quickly capture data about their living samples.

The RAD on deck. Photo via Wyss Institute
The RAD on deck. Photo via Wyss Institute

Robert Wood, who led the development of the RAD at his Wyss lab, concludes, “Our group’s collaboration with the marine biology community has opened the door for the fields of soft robotics and origami-inspired engineering to apply those technologies to solve problems in an entirely different discipline, and we are excited to see the ways in which this synergy creates novel solutions.”

A paper detailing this RAD experimentation, titled “Rotary-actuated folding polyhedrons for midwater investigation of delicate marine organisms“, is published online in Science Robotics. It is co-authored by Zhi Ern Teoh, Brennan T. Phillips, Kaitlyn P. Becker, Griffin Whittredge, James C. Weaver, Chuck Hoberman, David F. Gruber and Robert J. Wood.

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Featured image shows the RAD capturing a small octopus and setting it free. Clip via Wyss Institute