Humans aren’t good at grasping things underwater, but new research reveals how nature could lend us a helping hand. Scientists at Virginia Tech have developed a glove for grasping things underwater with rubber suckers and a sophisticated sensing capability that mimics an octopus’s unique muscular and nervous systems.
The octopus is very well equipped to handle all kinds of objects in the water. This is facilitated by more than 2,000 suckers spread across eight arms and an ability to process information from an array of chemical and mechanical sensors, which allows the octopus to navigate rocky terrain and latch onto smooth shells and rough barnacles. Importantly, it also enables the sea creatures to do so with a delicate touch and without exerting too much force.
In developing the “Octa-glove,” the researchers sought to recreate these capabilities for the human hand. The glove features rubber stalks capped with soft, actuated membranes that mimic the octopus suckers and are designed to adhere to both flat and curved surfaces while only applying light pressure. It does this with an array of micro-LIDAR optical proximity sensors that detect nearby objects. A microcontroller connects the sensors with the synthetic suckers to govern their behavior, with the gripping abilities of the glove able to be configured by tuning the sensor array, depending on the task at hand.
When latching onto smaller objects such as spoons, metal toys and a hydrogel ball, the glove relies on just a single sensor to grasp them with a delicate touch. By setting it to use all of its onboard sensors for object detection, the glove is able to pick up larger objects, such as plates, boxes and bowls, all without closing the hand.
“By merging soft, responsive adhesive materials with embedded electronics, we can grasp objects without having to squeeze,” said Prof. Michael Bartlett, who led the research team. “It makes handling wet or underwater objects much easier and more natural. The electronics can activate and release adhesion quickly. Just move your hand toward an object, and the glove does the work to grasp. It can all be done without the user pressing a single button.”
The scientists imagine the Octa-glove finding use in all kinds of underwater applications. It could be worn by rescue divers working to extract people or objects in challenging situations, for engineers maintaining bridges, or archaeologists looking for submerged artifacts. Importantly, it will enable them to grasp objects—without applying much pressure—by using the sensing abilities and synthetic suckers of the glove.
The research was published in the journal Science Advances.