MIT built a gel-based claw robot that can catch and release live fish

MIT’s latest robot looks a bit like one of those claw machines you find at the front of an arcade, only instead of metal, the claws are made of a clear, membranous substance. And instead of stuffed Minion dolls, they pick up live fish. But other than that, the principles are pretty similar.

The robot’s limbs are made from hydrogel, an extremely pliable material that’s composed primarily of water, formed into structures using 3D printing and laser cutting. When water is pumped into the limbs, they stretch or curl, opening and closing like a hand.

Using the eel-inspired robot, the researchers were able to make the claw close fast enough to grab a goldfish without harming it in the process, while a more traditional robotic hand would likely crush the fish in the process, and nobody wants that.

The team fully admits it hasn’t quite figured out a real world use for the odd fish-grabbing ‘bot, but the material does play along nicely with human tissue, meaning it could someday have some usual surgical applications.

“Hydrogels are soft, wet, biocompatible, and can form more friendly interfaces with human organs,” says lead researcher Xuanhe Zhao. “We are actively collaborating with medical groups to translate this system into soft manipulators such as hydrogel ‘hands,’ which could potentially apply more gentle manipulations to tissues and organs in surgical operations.”

The transparent fish grabber was created with funds from the Office of Naval Research, the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies and the National Science Foundation.