Octa-Gloves – These gloves grip like an octopus
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- New gloves combine pneumatic suction cups and an artificial nervous system.
- They are inspired by the octopus, which controls each of its 2,000 suckers separately.
- Underwater grip requires special tricks because things are harder to grip.
Researchers have developed sticky underwater gloves inspired by real octopus arms. The secret is the idea of alternating adhesive, which helps the octopus pick up only when it wants to. In humanities terms, that means combining sticky pads that can turn on and off with elaborate software and hardware controls. Could we all be next Tom Cruise, with gloves to climb the Burj Khalifa? (Well, if it were underwater. Okay, that’s not a perfect analogy! Back to the science.)
Researchers explain in a recent Scientists progress paper that although adhesives on land and for dry environments have made leaps and bounds in recent years, it is still very difficult to stick to things underwater. Finding a way to do this could make a big difference in a variety of big jobs, like underwater welding, where divers might work in a wet environment but would benefit from a more dynamic way of staying in place while they working. Mechanical and materials engineers from Virginia Tech, Iowa State, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln collaborated on the project.
Let’s talk about adhesives for a moment. Yes, the mental image most of us conjure up is of glue, whether it’s in a tube, pre-applied to a label or sticker, etc. But glue from a tube is just a very specific type of adhesive material. It is designed to be applied wet and then allowed to dry, with results generally meant to be permanent. Some removable adhesives are designed to remove your wall or computer without leaving any residue or damage. And there are reusable adhesive glues, but they usually lose their stickiness over time.
The largest term “grip” is a physical descriptor. At the molecular level, different materials are prone to bond in different ways by doing things like sharing their outermost electrons. Depending on the materials and the situation, the “link” area can become almost a separate material – bigger, or at least stickier, than the sum of its parts. There are also adhesions due to physical forces such as vacuum and surface tension. Think of dewdrops that collect on a plant stem but don’t drip until you touch them. They are bonded to the stem by natural forces.
The octopus uses grip to travel and navigate underwater, reaching out its arms and clinging to rocks and other objects in its path. It can also use grip to grab and hold prey, which very few underwater creatures have the means to do. Certainly, researchers who study fish and want to catch them alive don’t have a good, reliable way to grab and hold them without harming the fish. Even using both hands, it is difficult for us to get a secure grip. Fish are slippery!
This all brings us back to gloves. They’re dotted with silicone membranes on rods — think of a suction cup dart but with a controllable suction cup — and programmed with sensors and code that allow them to emulate a nervous system. The octopus has 2,000 suckers all over its body, the researchers explain; but this glove only has five, one on each fingertip. This is enough to grip and hold plastic and metal materials underwater when testing them.
“We saw the octopus as a combination of advanced gripping, sensing, processing and control,” said researcher Michael Bartlett, a professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. Popular mechanics in an email. “We were really interested in this integration of different functions, which the octopus brings together to pick up and release objects underwater.”
“Observing the natural world casually is beautiful, but when you start to wonder how it works, to try to create a material or an engineering design inspired by what you see, then I think you start to develop a deep appreciation of the wonders of nature,” Bartlett said. said. “We still have a lot to learn about how the octopus handles underwear so elegantly.”
We might not climb the Burj Khalifa, but what if Cruise’s Ethan Hunt had those gloves on when he had to hold his breath for minutes at a time in an underwater server farm? With a range of pneumatic suction cups activated by complex sensors and programming, maybe it’s Mission Possible.
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