Cyborg Jellyfish Could Help Explore Oceans Autonomously

Earth’s oceans, like space, are a largely unexplored frontier. Relatively few humans have explored either location using specialized life support equipment. However, unlike space, there are other beings in the ocean that you can explore: jellyfish. They can go to places underwater that humans can never go. This makes them interesting candidates for autonomous ocean exploration.

Jaan Dabiri, a researcher at the California Institute of Technology, is modifying these creatures to create biohybrid robotic jellyfish. These cyborg jellies do what they have done since time immemorial: swim, eat, sting, and reproduce. However, several enhancements, such as a small electronics pack and a prosthetic hat, have given these little guys enhanced swimming abilities. The idea is to use cyborg jellyfish as data collection robots. They swim in the ocean and collect information about temperature, oxygen levels, and salinity. Climate change affects all these factors. This is important in trying to understand how carbon dioxide buildup affects the ocean.

“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.”

Employing jellyfish to solve engineering challenges

Incorporating jellyfish into scientific data collection may seem a little strange, but it’s not a new idea. Inspired by these creatures, Dabiri tried creating mechanical robots that could swim in the same way. This idea kind of worked. However, the robot could not swim like the real thing. So Dabiri ultimately decided to essentially recruit live individuals for further experiments.

Dabiri and his colleagues first implanted electronic pacemakers into jellyfish to control their swimming speed. Once that worked, they added an additional part to the jelly called a forebody. It looks like a small hat on top of the body of the jelly. The team had to do some work to adapt it. Ultimately, they devised a model that works with sensors and other electronics.

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

How well did Cyborg Jellyfish work?

After many experiments, the team is ready to test the cyborg partner. They built his three-story aquarium at the California Institute of Technology for testing. Why is it so big? “In the ocean, it takes jellyfish several days to travel from the surface to several thousand meters and back, so we wanted to develop a facility to study that process in the lab,” Dabiri said. “Our vertical aquarium allows the animals to swim against a vertical current, much like a treadmill for swimmers. We hope that the unique scale of the facility will be useful for a variety of other basic and applied research challenges.”

A biohybrid jellyfish descends through a three-story aquarium where a swimming experiment was conducted.Credit: California Institute of Technology

The results are interesting. Experiments showed that cyborg jellyfish carrying an instrument payload swim up to 4.5 times faster than “naked” jellyfish. And they are hardy creatures that don’t seem to mind the job at all. “Jellyfish are the original ocean explorers, reaching the deepest depths and thriving in tropical and polar waters alike,” Dabiri says. “Because they don’t have a brain or the ability to feel pain, we were able to work with bioethicists to develop this biohybrid robotic application in a manner grounded in ethical principles.”

The price of cyborg jellyfish is quite low compared to very expensive marine equipment. Dabiri said the total cost will be about $20 per jellyfish. The price of a research vessel with similar features can exceed $50,000. Of course, jellyfish have only been tested in relatively shallow areas. In order to send the jelly deeper, more work needs to be done to the instrument pack. “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 full submarine operating at such depths. ” Dabiri said. “I’m really excited to see what we can learn just by observing these parts of the ocean for the first time.”

Cyborg jelly in space?

Dabiri’s research does not include space applications. But reading about these cyborgs evokes the idea of ​​using similar technology in other worlds. Cyborg jellyfish cannot be sent to Europe. But perhaps instrument designers could take a cue from their improved abilities and devise advanced swimmers to swim through the salty waters of distant moons. You never know what you might find. And it’s all thanks to our jellyfish research partners here on Earth.

For more information

Building a bionic jellyfish for ocean exploration
Bionic jellyfish swim faster and more efficiently
Jellyfish life enhancement with electromechanics for ocean exploration

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