Emerging Tech

This robot grabber is gentle enough to hold a jellyfish without damaging it

Soft robots are triggering a revolution in the way that robots are designed and built by using new softer materials that can more safely interact with the world around them. But how soft is soft? According to a new piece of research carried out by researchers at the American Museum of Natural History, City University of New York, and Harvard University, the answer is … soft enough not to harm a jellyfish.

If that sentence doesn’t mean anything to you don’t worry — you haven’t missed a popular saying or anything. But jellyfish are a good test subject because they’re so fragile and easily damaged. In their latest piece of work, the researchers used a soft robot with gentle, noodle-looking fingers to carefully handle these slippery sea-dwelling organisms. And the results were extremely promising.

“These tools were developed for working in remote areas like the deep sea and for handling a diversity of invertebrates,” Michael Tessler, a post-doctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History, told Digital Trends. “This gives scientists a path forward to more kindly interact with their study organism. The tools should also be useful for any other system where being gentle is important, and may be of use in the future for handling easily bruised produce or aiding in surgeries.”

Anand Varma

The researchers didn’t just stop at passively observing the way that the soft robot interacted with the jellyfish, though. Because jellyfish don’t make any sounds to indicate discomfort, the investigators carried out a genomic analysis to see how they found the experience. They discovered that the creators expressed significantly fewer stress-related genes than they did when held using traditional submersible grippers.

“Nobody really knows how these animals experience this handling,” Tessler continued. “We used genomic tools to help answer this and found the soft robotic tools indeed cause less disturbance to the animals in terms of the genes they are using. This proves we are onto something: we can handle critters with more care and we can make a difference to an animal’s life when we interact with it. This is especially important for explorations to remote areas of the ocean and the deep sea, where we often don’t know how rare an animal might be and may only have one chance at interacting with it.”

David Gruber, professor of Biology at City University of New York, told Digital Trends that “the next steps are to integrate the ultra-gentle robot fingers with other advanced technologies, like DNA swabbing, so we can begin to perform ‘medical check-ups’ in the deep-sea without harming the animal of interest.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Current Biology.

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