Emerging Tech

Caltech wants to explore the ocean with swarms of bionic jellyfish

For the past seven years, nature-inspired engineers from the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University have been working to create bionically augmented jellyfish which may one day be used to explore the oceans. Now, thanks to a prosthetic device that acts a bit like a pacemaker, they have found a way to propel them through the water even faster than before.

“The microelectronic device that we embed in the jellyfish is able to control the muscle contractions that the animals use to swim,” John Dabiri, the lead researcher on this project, told Digital Trends. “The device sends an electrical impulse to initiate each swimming contraction, and we can control the frequency of the contractions in this way.”

Like a pacemaker, the 0.8-inch device fires out electrical impulses. By attaching this prosthetic to the body of a jellyfish, it’s possible to control the rate at which they can travel. Jellyfish already have one of the most efficient forms of locomotion of any animal in the ocean. Usually they swim at about two centimeters per second. Using the electrical impulse-transmitting device, they can swim at up to three times their normal speed — despite only using twice the normal amount of energy. Jellyfish have no pain receptors or central nervous system, meaning that this kind of robotic control can be implemented without harming them.

“Jellyfish are the most energy-efficient swimming animals in the ocean, and also the first to learn how to swim some 500 million years ago,” Dabiri continued, explaining his lab’s interest in them. “They’re also able to traverse the entire ocean, from the equator to the poles and from the surface to the bottom. We hope to leverage this broad range in order to explore the far reaches of the ocean.”

Eventually, the team hopes to use the insights gained from work such as this to develop swimming robots able to explore the ocean, the vast majority of which remains out of reach for currently existing technologies. There’s still a way to go, however.

“The next steps are to control not only forward motion but also turning, so that we can more precisely direct the animals to locations of interest,” Dabiri said. “We’ll also work on hardening the microelectronics and sensors so that they’re as impervious to the high pressures in the deep ocean as the jellyfish themselves.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Science Advances.

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