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Octa-Gloves Hang On to Objects Like an Octopus

  • New gloves combine pneumatic suckers and an artificial nervous system.
  • They’re inspired by the octopus, which controls each of its 2,000 suckers separately.
  • Underwater adhesion requires special tricks, because things are harder to grip.

    Researchers have developed sticky underwater gloves inspired by the real arms of the octopus. The secret is the idea of alternating adhesive, which helps the octopus to only pick things up when it wants to. In human science terms, that means combining sticky pads that can switch on and off with elaborate software and hardware controls. Could we all be the next Tom Cruise, using gloves to climb the Burj Khalifa? (Well, if it were underwater. Okay, it’s not a perfect analogy! Back to the science.)

    The researchers explain in a recent Science Advances paper that while land based, dry environment adhesives have leapt forward in recent years, it’s still really difficult to stick to things underwater. Finding a way to do it could make a big difference in a variety of important jobs, like underwater welding, where divers can work in the wet environment but would benefit from a more dynamic way to stick in place while they work. Mechanical and materials engineers from Virginia Tech, Iowa State, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln collaborated on the project.

    Let’s talk about adhesives for a second. Yes, the mental picture most of us conjure up is of glue, whether in a tube, pre-applied to a label or sticker, and so forth. But glue from a tube is only one very specific type of material that is adhesive. It’s designed to be applied wet and then left to dry, with results that are usually meant to be permanent. There are some removable adhesives that are designed to pull off your wall or computer without leaving residue or damage. And there are reusable adhesive glues, but they typically lose their grip over time.

    The broader term “adhesion” is a physical descriptor. On the molecular level, different materials are inclined to bond in different ways by doing things like sharing their outermost electrons. Depending on the materials and the situation, the area of the “bond” can become almost a separate material—greater, or at least stickier, than the sum of its parts. There are also adhesions from physical forces like vacuums and surface tension. Think of drops of dew that gather on a plant stem but don’t flow downward until you touch them. They’re adhered to the stem by natural forces.

    The octopus uses adhesion to travel and navigate underwater, advancing its arms and clinging to rocks and other objects in its path. It can also use adhesion to grab and hold prey, something that very few underwater creatures have a way to do. Certainly researchers who study fish and wish to catch them alive don’t have a good, reliable way to grab and hold them without hurting the fish. Even using both hands, it’s hard for us to get a secure grip. Fish are slippery!

    All this brings us back to the gloves. They’re dotted with silicon membranes on stalks—think about a sucker dart but with a controllable sucker—and programmed with sensors and code that let them emulate a nervous system. The octopus has 2,000 suckers on its entire body, the researchers explain; but this glove has just five, one on each fingertip. That’s enough to grab and hold plastic and metal materials underwater in their testing.

    octaglove on a plastic bowl

    Michael Bartlett, Virginia Tech

    “We saw the octopus as a combination of advanced adhesion, sensing, processing, and control,” researcher Michael Bartlett, a mechanical engineering professor at Virginia Tech, tells Popular Mechanics in an email. “We were really interested by this integration of different functions, which the octopus brings together to pick up and release objects underwater.”

    “Casually observing the natural world is beautiful, but when you begin to wonder how it works, to try and create an engineered material or design inspired by what you see, then I think you begin to develop a deep appreciation for nature’s wonders,” Bartlett says. “We still have a lot to learn about how the octopus manipulates objects underwear so elegantly.”

    We may not climb the Burj Khalifa, but what if Cruise’s Ethan Hunt had these gloves when he had to hold his breath for minutes at a time in an underwater server farm? With an array of pneumatic suckers enabled by complex sensors and programming, it may just be Mission Possible.

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