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New ‘octa-glove’ inspired by octopus tentacles can help humans grab slippery objects underwater

·3-min read

Engineers have developed a new type of glove, inspired by an octopus’s tentacles, that allows the wearer to simply hover their hand over an object to grip it.

The “Octa-glove” can tightly grip objects underwater, potentially aiding robotic innovations for underwater exploration and healthcare, said a study in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday.

With the human hand not well equipped to hold on to slippery things underwater, scientists at Virginia Tech in the US point out that handling delicate objects poses a challenge for rescue divers, underwater archaeologists and bridge engineers.

To overcome this problem, they made the Octa-glove – inspired by suckers on octopus tentacles that can quickly activate and release adhesion on demand.

The glove reimagines an octopus’s sucker that can reliably latch on to objects using light pressure, ideal for both flat and curved surfaces.

The sucker’s wide outer rim seals around an object after which tentacle muscles contract and relax the cupped area behind the rim to add and release pressure.

This helps the cephalopods create a strong adhesive bond with their tentacles that is difficult to escape.

“Nature already has some great solutions, so our team looked to the natural world for ideas. The octopus became an obvious choice for inspiration,” said Michael Bartlett, a co-author of the study from Virginia Tech.

“What is just as interesting, though, is that the octopus controls over 2,000 suckers across eight arms by processing information from diverse chemical and mechanical sensors. The octopus is really bringing together adhesion tunability, sensing, and control to manipulate underwater objects,” Dr Barlett explained.

With octopus-inspired adhesive mechanisms developed, researchers also designed a way for the glove to sense objects and trigger adhesion using an array of tiny Lidar sensors that use light to detect how close an object is.

The artificial suckers and Lidar sensors are also connected through a microcontroller to pair the object-sensing process along with sucker engagement, mimicking an octopus’s nervous and muscular systems.

“By merging soft, responsive adhesive materials with embedded electronics, we can grasp objects without having to squeeze,” Dr Bartlett explained.

“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,” he added.

Testing the glove on different gripping modes underwater, the study found researchers could quickly pick up and release flat objects, metal toys, cylinders, the double-curved portion of a spoon and an ultrasoft hydrogel ball.

They could also grip larger objects such as a plate, a box and a bowl by reconfiguring the sensor network to utilise all sensors for object detection.

The glove could also adhere to and lift flat, cylindrical, convex and spherical objects consisting of both hard and soft materials even when users did not grab the object by closing their hands.

“These capabilities mimic the advanced manipulation, sensing, and control of cephalopods and provide a platform for synthetic underwater adhesive skins that can reliably manipulate diverse underwater objects,” said Ravi Tutika, a postdoctoral researcher who was part of the study team.

“This is certainly a step in the right direction, but there is much for us to learn both about the octopus and how to make integrated adhesives before we reach nature’s full gripping capabilities,” Dr Tutika added.

Researchers believe the glove can play a role in the field of soft robotics for underwater gripping as well as in manufacturing.

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