An experimental robot with a gentle touch is helping scientists unlock the mysteries of delicate marine life.

The machine — known as "Squishy Fingers” — can operate under intense pressure, as it descends more than 150 meters to collect samples on deep reefs.

The fingers were designed to mimic the dexterity and soft touch of a diver's hand, while standard metal grippers were built for undersea construction, not for handling living sea life. 

What the grippers can’t do, said Kevin Galloway, a mechanical engineer at Wyss Institute who helped develop the robot, “is go into some of these little burrows where some of these sea creatures live. They just don't have the instruments that are flexible enough, that are small enough, to go in there."

Two kinds of soft robotic grippers were developed to pick up delicate objects of various shapes and sizes. The grippers are made from memory foam that gives them flexibility, and were tested using various vegetables.

"The memory foam does this really neat thing, where as you start to squish it down, it hits a certain pressure,” said Kaitlyn Becker, a graduate student at Wyss Institute. “You press a little bit and you get some pressure, then as you keep squeezing it down, it doesn't change." 

There are plans to embed sensors on the grippers to measure the specimens and collect genetic data without removing them from the sea. Besides a video feed from the robot, the scientists hope to add a tactile response to the grippers, so researchers can feel what they are touching.