July 19 (UPI) -- "Do no harm" is a motto many professions do their best to abide by -- including marine biologists. When studying delicate, soft-bodied organisms, doing no harm is no easy task.
To trap and hold fragile marine organisms, a team of researchers at Harvard and the University of Rhode Island looked to origami for inspiration.
The scientists constructed an encapsulation device composed of five 3D-printed polymer "petals." The segmented petals are linked by a series of rotating joints. A simple motor applies a torque force to the joints to fold or unfold the petals.
When unfolded, the petals form a dodecahedron structure, a rounded box that can be used to trap small organisms.
"It isn't very good at bringing a whole animal back up to the surface, but it can surround a delicate animal very quickly without harming it," Brennan Phillips, an assistant professor of ocean engineering at Rhode Island, said in a news release. "We envision outfitting a next-generation device with cameras, sensors, and a way to collect small tissue samples for genetic work."
Eventually, the device's creators hope the so-called Rotary Actuated Dodecahedron will help biologists identify new species in the open ocean and deep sea without ever bringing them to the surface.
"There are literally thousands of species of gelatinous animals that remain undescribed in the deep sea simply because there is no good way to bring them to the surface intact," Phillips said.
Researchers first tested their device at the Mystic Aquarium, safely capturing and releasing moon jellyfish as they swam underwater. Next, scientists attached the device to the robotic arm of an underwater remotely-operated vehicle. Biologists used the technology to successfully capture squid and jellyfish at ocean depths ranging from 1,600 to 2,300 feet.
The engineers believe their foldable design -- detailed this week in the journal Science Robotics -- could have a variety of applications.
"We believe that the geometric design can be used for things like deployable solar arrays and mirrors in space, as well as for nano-scale manufacturing," Phillips said. "There are likely a lot of other potential applications, but using this high-tech approach to study deep-sea animals is really the best thing, in my opinion."