3D Printed Origami Device Safely Traps Soft-Bodied Sea Creatures for Study

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Many 3D printing applications and innovations, like self-folding objects, robots, and face masks, have been inspired by the Japanese paper folding art of origami. Now, a collaborative group of scientists from Harvard University, the University of Rhode Island, and City University of New York (CUNY) have combined the principles of 3D printing and origami to find a less damaging way to capture delicate, soft-bodied sea creatures like squids, anemones, and jellyfish.

While soft forms like these are adapted to ocean pressures, it’s hard to catch them for the purposes of study without injuring the very subjects you want to learn more about. Marine biologist David Gruber, who helped design the capture device, says that these creatures are often called the “forgotten fauna” because their study has been so neglected. But the multi-university research team recently introduced its 3D printed, 12-sided trap, inspired by origami, that can fold around these animals gently, without harming them.

The RAD device, which is short for rotary actuated dodecahedron, is far better equipped for handling these delicate creatures than nets or suction samplers. It can be attached to the arm of an underwater rover, then triggered remotely, and has already successfully trapped jellyfish and small squid and octopuses at a depth of 700 meters. However, the design can work at depths up to 11 kilometres, with the possibility of being scaled up even further for larger creatures.

Still images showing the capture of three different types of soft-bodied sea life using the RAD. [Image: Wyss Institute at Harvard University]

Zhi Ern Teoh, a mechanical engineer at Harvard, said the most important part of the design was getting it to unfold with just one motor so that the system has fewer points of failure. The team had to create a complex series of linkages, lightweight enough so as not to cause motor strain but still able to hold up underwater, which would connect each of the 12 panels back to the motor.

The RAD has several other important design touches, including making the edges of the panels softer than the rest of the plastic device so creatures struggling to get out (which makes me sad to think about but I know it’s important to study these animals so I’ll just get over it) aren’t accidentally amputated. Additionally, there are gaps between each of the panels to pressure doesn’t build up inside when the RAD travels back up to the surface.

“I view this as a platform technology that we hope will continue to evolve. 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. Then, we’d release it,” Gruber told the Verge.

L-R: Zhi Ern Teoh inspects the RAD when attached to an underwater rover; a closeup of the RAD folded shut. [Image: Kaitlyn Becker, Wyss Institute at Harvard]

The basic RAD organism, as previously mentioned, can be scaled up for the capture of larger species, and Teoh even says it could one day be possible to develop a version that’s human-sized, which could have applications in self-building habitats in outer space. In addition, the current remote-controlled RAD could be turned into an automated trap in the future that uses sensors to detect when a creature is passing by.

3D printing has helped us sample the floor of the ocean and clean up debris from its shores, give coral reefs a helping hand, and quietly observe marine life. Now, this basic 3D printed origami mechanism can help us safely capture soft-bodied organisms for the purposes of study.

Gruber believes, and I tend to agree, that this kind of advanced technology is absolutely imperative to exploring our oceans without causing further harm to the myriad creatures that call them home. We are only just scratching the surface when it comes to figuring out just how important of a role marine life – from the tiniest sea cucumber to the most massive of coral reefs – can play in the overall ecosystem of the ocean.

The RAD device capturing a squid in the ocean. ]Image: Wyss Institute at Harvard University]

The team published a paper on their development of the RAD in the Science Robotics journal, which you can read here. Co-authors are Teoh, Brennan T. Phillips, Kaitlyn P. Becker, Griffin Whittredge, James C. Weaver, Chuck Hoberman, Gruber, and Robert J. Wood.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below. 

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