This year’s must-have marine accessory: a five-fingered octopus appendage for working underwater

An octopus-inspired glove complete with suckers could help humans hold onto slippery objects underwater.

Rescue divers, archaeologists, bridge engineers and salvage crews all need to use their hands to pick up people and objects underwater. Yet anyone who has tried to hold a wriggling fish will know that underwater objects can be hard to grip with human fingers. 

Now, a team of Virginia Tech researchers have looked to nature for a solution, finding inspiration in the octopus.

Enter the “Octa-glove”, a five-fingered appendage featured in Science Advances.

“When we look at the octopus, the adhesive certainly stands out, quickly activating and releasing adhesion on demand,” says Michael Bartlett, assistant professor of mechanical engineering who led the research team.

“What is just as interesting, though, is that the octopus controls over 2000 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.”

Each Octa-glove finger mimics an octopus tentacle, with a fingerprint-sized rubber synthetic sucker attached. The suckers are capped with soft membranes designed to reliably attach to flat and curved objects using light pressure.

Octa glove vt card
Octa-glove picking up a Virginia Tech playing card underwater from the lab of Michael Bartlett. Credit: Virginia Tech

The team added micro-LIDAR sensors that enable the glove to detect how close an object is. These sensors mimic the nervous and muscular systems of an octopus, triggering the suckers to hold on.

“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,” says Bartlett.

The researchers are able to manipulate the mini-LIDAR to test different gripping modes. To manipulate delicate and lightweight objects, they used a single sensor and were able to quickly pick up and release flat objects, metal toys, cylinders, the double-curved portion of a spoon, and an ultrasoft hydrogel ball. By using all sensors for object detection, they also were able to grip larger objects like a plate, a box, and a bowl. 

The research team included Sean Frey, A.B.M. Tahidul Haque, Elizabeth Krotz, Cole Haverkamp, and Chanhong Lee, representing Virginia Tech, Iowa State University, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

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