Building Bionic Jellyfish for Ocean Exploration

Jellyfish can’t do anything other than swim, sting, eat, and reproduce. They don’t even have brains. However, these simple creatures, despite how sophisticated humans are, can easily travel to the depths of the ocean.

But what if humans let jellyfish explore the ocean on our behalf and report what they find? A new study conducted at the California Institute of Technology explores what researchers call biohybrid robot jellyfish. The aim is to make it a reality through creation. These creatures, thought to be ocean-going cyborgs, augment the jellyfish with electronics that enhance their swimming and artificial “hats” that allow the jellyfish to swim more streamlined and at the same time carry smaller payloads.

Works published in magazines bioinspiration and biomimetics, The research was conducted in the lab of Centennial Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering John Dabiri (M.A. ’03, Ph.D. ’05) and builds on his previous work on augmenting jellyfish . The goal of Dabiri’s research is to use jellyfish as robotic data collectors, sending them into the ocean to collect information about temperature, salinity, and oxygen levels that are affected by changes in Earth’s climate. .

“It is well known that the ocean is important in determining the current and future climate on land, yet surprisingly little is known about the ocean, especially far from the Earth’s surface,” Dabiri said. he says. “Our goal is to finally move that needle by taking an unconventional approach inspired by one of the few animals that has already successfully explored the entire ocean.”

Media Asset: Robot Jellyfish Explorer

Throughout his career, Dabiri has looked to the natural world, including jellyfish, for inspiration to solve engineering challenges. The research began with an early attempt by Dabiri’s lab to develop a mechanical robot that swims like a jellyfish, with the most efficient way of moving underwater of any living creature. Although his research team succeeded in creating such a robot, it could not swim as efficiently as a real jellyfish. At that point, Dabiri asked himself, why not just deal with the jellyfish themselves?

“Jellyfish are the original ocean explorers, reaching the deepest depths and thriving in tropical and polar waters alike,” Dabiri says. “Because they do not have a brain or the ability to sense pain, we were able to work with bioethicists to develop this biohybrid robotic application in a manner grounded in ethical principles.”

Previously, Dabiri’s lab implanted jellyfish with a type of electronic pacemaker that controls how fast they swim. They found that when the jellyfish were forced to swim faster than their usual slow pace, they became more efficient. A jellyfish that swims three times as fast as a normal girl only uses twice as much energy as a normal girl.

Now, the research team has gone a step further and added something called a prosome to the jelly. These anterior bodies are like a cap on the jellyfish’s bell (the mushroom-shaped part of the animal). The device was designed by Simon Anuszczyk (MS ’22), a graduate student and first author. He aimed to make the Jellyfish more streamlined while providing a place to carry sensors and other electronics.

Photo of Szymon Anuszczyk and John Dabiri. The two of them are standing in front of a large aquarium with smiles on their faces.

Shimon Anuszczyk (left) and John Dabiri (right)

Credit: California Institute of Technology

“Similar to the pointed end of an arrow, we designed a 3D-printed forebody to streamline the jellyfish robot’s bell, reduce drag, and improve swimming performance,” says Anuszczyk. “At the same time, we carefully balanced the buoyancy and experimented with 3D printing until we were able to keep the jellyfish swimming vertically.”

To test the enhanced jelly’s swimming abilities, Dabiri’s lab set out to build a giant vertical aquarium at the Guggenheim Institute at the California Institute of Technology. Dabiri explains that the three-story tank is taller rather than wider because researchers want to collect data about ocean conditions below the surface.

“In the ocean, it takes several days for jellyfish to travel from the surface to several thousand meters and back, so we wanted to develop a facility to study this process in the lab,” Dabiri said. “Our vertical aquariums allow animals to swim against a vertical current, much like a treadmill for swimmers.The unique scale of this facility, perhaps the first vertical water treadmill of its kind, , we expect it to be useful for a variety of other fundamental and applied applications’ research questions. ”

A biohybrid jellyfish crosses the three-story aquarium where swimming tests were conducted. The photo is a composite image that shows the jellyfish in multiple positions as it descends to the ocean floor.

A biohybrid jellyfish descends through a three-story aquarium where a swimming experiment was conducted.

Credit: California Institute of Technology

Swimming tests carried out in an aquarium showed that a jellyfish equipped with a swimming pacemaker and a front body can swim up to 4.5 times faster than natural jellies while carrying cargo. Dabiri said the total cost per jellyfish is about $20, making biohybrid jelly an attractive option for renting research vessels, where daily operating costs can cost more than $50,000. It is said that

“By harnessing jellyfish’s natural ability to withstand the extreme pressures of the deep ocean and their ability to propel themselves by feeding, our engineering challenge becomes much more manageable,” Dabiri said. added. “You have to design the sensor package to withstand the same fracturing pressures, but the device is smaller than a softball, making it much easier to design than a complete submarine operating at such depths. .

“I’m really looking forward to seeing what we can learn just by observing these parts of the ocean for the first time,” he added.

Dabiri said future research could focus on further enhancing bionic jelly’s capabilities. At the moment, it is only possible to swim faster in a straight line, with vertical paths designed for deep-sea measurements. However, further research could also make it steerable, allowing it to be oriented not only vertically but also horizontally.

A paper describing this research, “Electromechanical enhancement of living jellyfish for ocean exploration,” will be published in the February 28, 2018 issue. Bioinspiration and biomimetics. Co-authors are Anuszczyk and Dabiri.

Funding for the research was provided by the National Science Foundation and the Charles Lee Powell Foundation.

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