A team of scientists at Virginia Tech’s Michael Bartlett have developed an octopus-inspired glove capable of securely gripping objects underwater. Humans aren’t naturally prepared to thrive in an underwater environment. They use tanks to breathe, neoprene suits to protect and warm our bodies, and goggles to see clearly. In such an environment, the human hand also is poorly equipped to hold onto things. Anyone who has tried to hold onto a wriggling fish will testify that underwater objects are difficult to grip with our fingers.
“There are critical times when this becomes a liability,” said Bartlett, an assistant professor in the department of mechanical engineering. “Nature already has some great solutions, so our team looked to the natural world for ideas. The octopus became an obvious choice for inspiration.”
An octopus is one of the most unique creatures on the planet, equipped with eight lengthy arms that can take hold of myriad things in an aquatic environment. In a beautiful integration of practical tools and intelligence, these arms are covered with suctions controlled by the sea animal’s muscular and nervous systems. Each suction, shaped like the end of a plunger, contributes a powerful sucking ability. After the suction’s wide outer rim makes a seal with an object, muscles contract and relaxes the cupped area behind the rim to add and release pressure. When many of the suckers are engaged, it creates a strong adhesive bond that is difficult to escape.
“When we look at the octopus, the adhesive certainly stands out, quickly activating and releasing adhesion on demand,” said Bartlett. “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.”
“By merging soft, responsive adhesive materials with embedded electronics, we can grasp objects without having to squeeze,” said Bartlett. “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.”
“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 postdoctoral researcher Ravi Tutika. “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.”
The publication can be found here.