Humans are not meant to live underwater, or even grasp objects in an aquatic environment. However, nature offers several examples of creatures that have developed the ability to form strong bonds in "wet" situations: and biomimicry is here to seize the opportunity.
A team of Virginia Tech researchers has created an octopus-inspired glove that can grab objects underwater. The glove is equipped with rubber suction cups and a sophisticated detection system that reproduces the unique muscular and nervous system of the octopus.
Octopuses of genius
The octopus (but I prefer to say octopus) is one of the most unique animals on Earth. Its unique characteristics make it almost an "alien" on our planet, and for this biomimicry studies many solutions inspired by this animal. There are around camouflage technologies, robotic arms, soft robots and a thousand other things inspired by octopuses.
One of the peculiarities of the octopus is the presence of eight long tentacles that can grasp and manipulate a variety of objects in an aquatic environment. The muscular and nervous system controls more than 2.000 suction cups on these tentacles: the sharp edges of the suction cups are harder and even allow you to cut almost any material.
Researchers recreate these capabilities for the human hand by creating a wearable system called the "Octa-glove". Octa-glove is a glove that, in fact, allows us to have an "octopus hand". Rubberized fingers are covered with soft, activatable membranes that mimic octopus suction cups, allowing for a reliable grip on objects even with minimal pressure.
The team connected a series of tiny optical LiDAR proximity sensors to the underside of the glove, which register the proximity of an object. The combination of suction cups and sensors was then connected via a microcontroller, to simulate the nervous and muscular systems of the octopuses.
"By fusing soft and reactive adhesive materials with embedded electronics, we can grasp objects without the risk of crushing them", says Michael Bartlett, assistant of Virginia Tech.
“Handling wet or underwater objects will be much easier and more natural. The electronics can quickly and automatically activate and release an object: just bring your hand closer and everything happens by itself, without having to press any button ".
This solution (glove with synthetic suction cups and integrated sensors) convinces me very much. And it works well, too. In tests Octa-glove managed to handle delicate and light objects: metal toys, cylinders, even an ultra-soft hydrogel sphere. By reconfiguring the sensor network, he then grabbed and manipulated even larger objects such as a plate, a box and a bowl.
Octopus hands: possible applications
"These capabilities mimic the advanced manipulation, detection and control of cephalopods and provide a platform for synthetic underwater adhesive skins that can reliably manipulate various underwater objects." said the postdoctoral researcher Ravi Tutika in an interview on the official Virginia Tech website (I link it to you here).
"This is definitely a step in the right direction, but there is a lot to learn about both octopuses and how to make integrated adhesives before reaching the full grip that these authentic forces of nature have."
Looking ahead, the researchers envision Octa-Glove may play a role in the field of soft robotics for underwater gripping. Applications in user-assisted technologies, healthcare and manufacturing for the assembly and handling of wet objects will also be possible.
It could be worn by divers, underwater archaeologists, bridge engineers and rescue teams to extract people and objects from the water.
A nice octopus! (Sorry, readers of the Italian version: I had to say).