via NYT

The ocean is filled with jellyfish. They form critical links in the marine food chain, some are immortal and others remain floating enigmas. Some scientists consider them and other squishy creatures similar to living works of art, and they don’t want to kill or injure these masterpieces they’re trying to understand.

“It’s almost akin to how a scientist would study a painting in The Louvre,” said David Gruber, a marine biologist at the City University of New York’s Baruch College. “Someone studying the Mona Lisa wouldn’t just cut a piece off and do some analysis on it. We want to get as much information as we can without harming the painting.”

That’s why Dr. Gruber and a team of engineers and marine scientists are announcing a new invention for studying soft sea creatures like jellyfish or squid in their natural habitat.

The RAD sampler (short for rotary actuated dodecahedron), is essentially a 3D printed, origami catcher’s mitt. It uses a single motor to fold itself from a 20-inch flat star into a 12-sided encasement, eight inches wide. With it, researchers can gently hold squishy sea animals temporarily for observation without harming, killing or having to bring them to the surface. This sampler, which was detailed Wednesday in a paper in Science Robotics, is part of a larger effort to design robots that aid in the study of our planet’s most mysterious habitat.

Capturing and preserving sea jellies for study is hard. The animals slip out of trawls or shred inside them. Two collection devices exist: a cylinder with lids on each end called a detritus sampler and one that is a cross between a vacuum and one of those pneumatic tubes at a drive-through bank called a suction sampler. But they require careful manipulation, and animals can get stuck and destroyed in the plumbing.

Even with updated versions, many floating creatures are only trapped in memory.

“You get used to the fact that there are these animals that won’t get described, or won’t get described by you,” Brennan Phillips, an ocean engineer and Remote Operated Vehicle Pilot at the University of Rhode Island and co-author on the study, said.

One day when Dr. Phillips was studying at a microengineering lab at Harvard, a graduate student named Zhi Teoh presented a tiny paper model of a polyhedron he had hand folded, like origami, from a single panel with tweezers under a microscope. After the meeting, Dr. Phillips, asked if Dr. Teoh could make it bigger — to capture sea creatures.

To adapt his design, Dr. Teoh overcame many challenges, including making it easy to repair, not reliant on too many motors, able to withstand the deep ocean’s pressures and gentle on the animals when it closed.

“We now have this complex, elegant solution to a problem that we’ve been struggling with for decades in midwater sciences,” said Dr. Phillips.

Dr. Gruber sees the RAD sampler as a platform technology for “deep sea abduction.” By adding internal cameras and sensors, the origami enclosure could become an underwater laboratory, capable of scanning an animal’s body for reconstruction and collecting DNA samples or physiological responses under changing environmental conditions.

The tool can attach to grabber arms on ROVs or submarines. To operate it, a pilot steers the submersible toward the target animal while another pilot moves the sampler with a joystick. The tool is gently closed around the animal before releasing it. It’s kind of like how you’d try to use a claw crane to get a stuffed teddy bear at an arcade — except it works.

The researchers first tried the encasement on a moon jelly in an aquarium before joining the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute on a cruise to test it out on an ROV in the real ocean off the coast of California.

They captured and released two squids and a jellyfish at depths between 1,800 and 2,100 feet. The device was built, however, to withstand the deepest depths — more than 36,000 feet.

Right now it’s relatively small, but future iterations, made stronger with titanium or stainless steel, can be scaled up or down to capture any surprising animals the researchers may encounter.

The RAD sampler is part of a movement toward gentle marine tech (like squishy fingers) designed to avoid killing, harming or stressing marine animals in totally different surface environments. The team plans to make the design open source so others can try out their ideas.

“I think you’re going to have some great discoveries,” said Dr. Phillips. “You’re going to see some things that nobody has ever seen.”