Origami inspired sea creature enclosure

Origami enclosure could be used to capture squid, jellyfish and aliens

Image credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

A collaboration of US researchers has developed an origami-inspired device ideal for capturing delicate specimens in the deep sea, and perhaps even in space.

Organisms which evolved deep in the ocean – under almost complete darkness, perishing cold and crushing pressure – appear startlingly different to those we are familiar with on the surface of the Earth. As a result, creatures like angler fish, colossal cephalopods and jellyfish are equipped with unfamiliar and often delicate anatomy, which can be damaged when handled with rigid instruments.

Some of these creatures’ adaptations to their extreme environment has presented almost insurmountable challenges in efforts to capture and study them.

In an effort to develop new, minimally disruptive ways to study deep-sea organisms, a collaboration of engineers from Harvard University and City University of New York designed a device which folds to trap and release sea creatures without causing harm.

“We approach these animals as if they are works of art; would we cut pieces out of the Mona Lisa to study it? No – we’d use the most innovative tools available,” said Professor David Gruber, a marine biologist at City University, who co-authored the research. “These deep-sea organisms, some being thousands of years old, deserve to be treated with a similar gentleness when we’re interacting with them.”

The idea of using a folding device to trap organisms arose while Zhi Ern Teoh, a former postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, was building small robots by hand and wondered if there was a less tedious process to fold flat surfaces into 3D shapes, perhaps by using a motor.

The engineers’ device uses actuators to fold sea creatures inside a polyhedral enclosure. It consists of five 3D-printed “pedals” attached to rotating joints which connect to form a scaffold. This allows it to fold into a dodecahedron when a single motor applies torque.

According to Teoh, this design is appropriate for the deep-sea environment due to its simple design: “Because its controls are very simple, there are fewer elements that can break. It’s also modular so if something does break, we can simply replace that part and send the sampler back down into the water.

“This folding design is also well-suited to be used in space, which is similar to the deep ocean in that it’s a low-gravity, inhospitable environment that makes operating any device challenging.”

The engineers are now working on a heavier-duty version of the enclosure which could be used to capture other marine specimens, such as rocks. They will also experiment with adding cameras and sensors to the device in order to collect useful information about the animal – perhaps even its genetic information – before it is released.

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