Octopus-inspired glove aids underwater grip

By combining suckers and sensors, the "Octaglove" can easily attach to and move objects
18 July 2022

Interview with 

Michael Bartlett, Virginia Tech


The Octa-glove holding a card underwater


Have you ever tried to grab something under water? Chances are, you slipped and slid all over the shop trying to get hold of it. Octopuses, on the other hand - or perhaps that should be tentacle! - seem to have no problem sweeping up objects and moving and manipulating them. How they do this was the inspiration for a new wearable piece of tech that Michael Barlett, a mechanical engineer from Virginia Tech, showcased for Julia Ravey…

Michael - A lot of people know that the octopus has eight arms, but it also has over 2000 individual suckers across those eight arms. And those suckers allow it to grab objects and then to quickly release them. What the octopus also has is millions of sensors across those adhesives and those arms, which allow it to actually feel its environment, and chemical sensors actually allow it to taste its environment. So what the octopus is able to do is to take information from those sensors and then process it in its brain. This ability to have adhesion control with the ability to sensor your environment, process that information, and then that allows the octopus to actually individually control those thousands of adhesives to pick up and release objects.

Julia - How does this compare to humans when we're underwater trying to grip things?

Michael - A lot of us can relate to the concept of having to pick up something wet and slippery underwater. It's quite hard. So what the octopus can do is actually with their suckers, or with this control of adhesion, they can pick up things without actually having to grab them. They can just lightly press their skin onto an object and that allows them to attach to that object reliably.

Julia - You've designed a product which makes us a little bit more octopus. What did you come up with?

Michael - Exactly. So what we wanted to do was to develop adhesives to mimic the suckers and take advantage of that concept of using sensing, processing, and control to manipulate objects underwater. So first we needed to make an octopus inspired adhesive and this consists of a rubber stop with a rubber membrane on top. We changed the shape of that membrane to rapidly change adhesion, about 450 times different from an attached state to a release state and we do that in less than 50 milliseconds. We then needed a sensor. So then we used what are called micro-LiDAR sensors, which essentially look at their environment and detect objects that get close to it by shining beams of light. We take the signal from that, we send it through a microprocessor and that allows us to detect objects in realtime underwater. Next we took this sensor and this adhesive and we put it onto a glove. We can now automatically trigger adhesion just by moving your hand next to an object, similar to how the octopus would grasp something underwater.

Julia - So if I had this glove on and I wanted to pick something up, say in my sink, and there's a plate in the sink and there's lots of water in there, and I had this glove on - what would be the process by me putting my hand in the water? How could I pick it up and then release it wearing this glove?

Michael - A plate is a great object to try to think about picking up; you can't simply just put your hand on a plate and pull it out of water. But if you had one of these gloves on, what we call Octaglove, you would essentially be able to take your hand in a flat state, put it on the flat part of the plate, and if you just move your hand close enough, the sensors will detect the plate, which then will rapidly trigger the adhesion to turn on. All of a sudden, you'll be attached to that plate, just like an octopus would be attached to a shell underwater, and then you could pull it out of the sink and then put it in your drying rack.

Julia - It's like a magnet, but not magnetic.

Michael - It is similar to that in the sense that you just have to get close enough, and then the adhesives and the glove take care of the rest to pick up that object.

Julia - What do you think this octopus-inspired technology could be used for then?

Michael - I think some of the areas we're excited about are certainly underwater grasping and moving of objects, you know, in the same way the octopus would. So I think you could imagine undersea divers being able to pick up objects that are delicate. We also envision it being useful for assistive devices and rehabilitation where a user could simply bring their hand close to an object and then the adhesion could turn on to allow them to pick up that object effortlessly. And I also think there's possibilities in manufacturing and other industrial settings.


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