Building Bionic Jellyfish for Ocean Exploration


This work by Rebecca Conte depicts a swarm of biohybrid robot jellyfish in the ocean. (Image: Caltech/Rebecca Conte)

Jellyfish can’t do anything other than swim, sting, eat, and reproduce. They don’t even have brains. But 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 small payloads.

Works published in magazines bioinspiration and biomimetics, The research was conducted in the lab of John Dabiri, Centennial Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering. This 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, which are affected by changes in Earth’s climate. .

“While it is well known that the ocean is important in determining current and future climate on land, there is still surprisingly little we know about the ocean, especially away from the Earth’s surface,” Dabiri said. Ta. “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.”

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 was successful 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 their deepest depths and thriving in tropical and polar waters alike,” Dabiri said. “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 swims three times faster than a normal her, but expends only twice as much energy.

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 graduate student and first author Simon Anuszczyk to make the jellyfish more streamlined, as well as provide a place to carry 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,” Anuszczyk said. Ta. “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 explained that the three-story tank is taller rather than wider because researchers want to collect data about ocean conditions far below the surface.

“In the ocean, it takes jellyfish several days to make the round trip from the surface to several thousand meters, so we wanted to develop a facility to study that process in the lab,” Dabiri says. The animals swim against a flowing vertical current, like a swimmer’s treadmill. We hope that the unique scale of this facility, perhaps the first vertical underwater treadmill of its kind, will be useful for a variety of other fundamental and applied research questions. ”

Swimming tests carried out in an aquarium showed that a jellyfish with a swimming pacemaker and 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

“Taking advantage of jellyfish’s natural ability to withstand the extreme pressures of the deep ocean and their ability to propel themselves through feeding makes our engineering challenge much more tractable,” added Dabiri. Ta. “You would 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 future research could focus on further enhancing bionic jelly’s capabilities. At the moment, it can only 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.

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