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Biohybrid jellyfish robots are helping scientists explore the oceans

Beneath the ocean’s mysterious depths, a revolution in exploration is brewing. Researchers at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) are pioneering a unique approach: biohybrid jellyfish robots.

The robots combine living jellyfish with tiny electronics, transforming them into data-gathering machines. Consequently, this project unlocks the potential to explore Earth’s final frontier, with profound implications for climate research and beyond.

Bridging the gap: Biohybrid jellyfish robots as aquatic explorers

This initiative, detailed in a study published in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, introduces the creation of biohybrid robotic jellyfish.

These are not your average sea creatures. They are essentially ocean-going cyborgs, enhanced with electronics to improve their swimming capabilities and equipped with a prosthetic “hat” that not only streamlines their movement but also allows them to carry small payloads.

John Dabiri, the Centennial Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering at Caltech and the brain behind this research, envisions these biohybrid jellyfish as innovative data-gatherers.

Their mission is to traverse the oceans, collecting crucial information on temperature, salinity, and oxygen levels — all vital data that sheds light on Earth’s changing climate.

Dabiri articulates the critical yet underexplored role of the ocean in determining our climate’s present and future, saying, “It’s well known that the ocean is critical for determining our present and future climate on land, and yet, we still know surprisingly little about the ocean, especially away from the surface.

“Our goal is to finally move that needle by taking an unconventional approach inspired by one of the few animals that already successfully explores the entire ocean,” Dabiri explains.

From mechanical to biohybrid robot solutions

The journey to biohybrid robotic jellyfish began with Dabiri’s attempts to mimic the swimming mechanism of jellyfish through mechanical robots.

Despite achieving a robot that swam like its biological counterpart, it fell short in efficiency compared to a real jellyfish. This realization steered the focus towards enhancing jellyfish themselves, leveraging their natural prowess in ocean exploration.

Jellyfish are the original ocean explorers, reaching its deepest corners and thriving just as well in tropical or polar waters,” Dabiri says. “Since they don’t have a brain or the ability to sense pain, we’ve been able to collaborate with bioethicists to develop this biohybrid robotic application in a way that’s ethically principled.”

Science behind biohybrid jellyfish robots

In a significant advancement, Dabiri’s team previously developed an electronic pacemaker to control the jellyfish’s swimming speed, discovering that faster swimming rates improved their efficiency.

Building on this, the team introduced a novel addition: forebodies, or prosthetic “hats,” designed by graduate student Simon Anuszczyk.

These devices not only streamline the jellyfish, reducing drag and enhancing performance, but also serve as carriers for sensors and electronics.

“Much like the pointed end of an arrow, we designed 3D-printed forebodies to streamline the bell of the jellyfish robot, reduce drag, and increase swimming performance,” Anuszczyk says.

“At the same time, we experimented with 3D printing until we were able to carefully balance the buoyancy and keep the jellyfish swimming vertically.”

Testing the jellyfish robots with deep vertical dives

To evaluate the augmented jellyfish’s capabilities, a unique vertical aquarium was constructed within Caltech’s Guggenheim Laboratory. This three-story tank, resembling a vertical treadmill for swimmers, enables researchers to simulate deep ocean conditions.

Swim tests revealed that jellyfish, when equipped with the swimming pacemaker and forebody, could swim up to 4.5 times faster than their natural counterparts while carrying a payload, all at a cost of about $20 per jellyfish. This presents a cost-effective alternative to the exorbitant expenses of operating research vessels.

Looking ahead, Dabiri expresses excitement about the potential insights from parts of the ocean previously unobserved. The team aims to further enhance the biohybrid jellyfish, potentially making them steerable for comprehensive horizontal and vertical exploration.

“By using the jellyfish‘s natural capacity to withstand extreme pressures in the deep ocean and their ability to power themselves by feeding, our engineering challenge is a lot more manageable,” Dabiri adds.

“We still need to design the sensor package to withstand the same crushing pressures, but that device is smaller than a softball, making it much easier to design than a full submarine vehicle operating at those depths,” Dabiri concluded.

Jellyfish, biohybrid robots, and the future

In summary, this fascinating work on biohybrid robotic jellyfish at Caltech marks a significant leap forward in oceanographic exploration. By merging the natural efficiency of jellyfish with cutting-edge technology, researchers have opened a new chapter in our quest to uncover the mysteries of the ocean.

This innovative approach demonstrates a cost-effective alternative to traditional research methods while promising to expand our understanding of underwater ecosystems and their response to climate change.

As we look toward the future, the potential for further enhancements and applications of biohybrid jellyfish invites us to reimagine the boundaries of exploration and scientific discovery beneath the waves.

Watch videos of these biohybrid jellyfish by clicking here.

More about biohybrid robotics and jellyfish

As discussed above, biohybrid robotics represents a revolutionary fusion of biological components with artificial robotic systems. This innovative approach aims to create more flexible, responsive, and adaptable machines that mimic the capabilities of living organisms.

By integrating living cells, tissues, or organisms with mechanical elements, biohybrid robotics opens up new possibilities for medical advancements, environmental monitoring, and more.

Basics of biohybrid robotics

Biohybrid robotics combines the strengths of biological systems with the precision and durability of robotic mechanisms. At its core, this interdisciplinary field leverages the self-healing, self-assembling, and adaptive capabilities of biological materials to enhance robotic functionality.

Researchers incorporate a variety of biological components, including muscle cells, neurons, and even whole organisms, into robotic structures to achieve specific goals.

Applications in medicine

One of the most promising applications of biohybrid robotics lies in the medical field. Biohybrid devices can mimic the behavior of human muscles, organs, or other tissues, leading to advanced prosthetics and implants that offer enhanced functionality and integration with the human body.

For example, biohybrid robots can serve as artificial muscles that respond to electrical stimuli, providing more natural movements for prosthetic limbs. Additionally, biohybrid systems are being developed to perform precise surgical operations, offering a new level of precision and control in minimally invasive surgery.

Environmental monitoring and repair

Beyond medical applications, biohybrid robots are also making strides in environmental conservation and repair. Equipped with living cells or organisms, these robots can monitor pollutants, assess ecosystems, and even participate in bio-remediation efforts to clean up environmental damage.

An example of this concept is seen in the biohybrid jellyfish robots developed by Caltech, as discussed previously in this article. Their ability to adapt and respond to changing conditions makes them particularly valuable for tasks in challenging or hazardous environments.

Challenges and ethical considerations

Despite its potential, the development of biohybrid robotics faces several challenges. Integrating living components with non-living systems requires careful consideration of biocompatibility, longevity, and ethical implications.

Ensuring the survival and functionality of biological materials outside their natural environment poses significant technical hurdles. Moreover, the use of living organisms in robotics raises ethical questions regarding their welfare and the potential for unintended ecological impacts.

Future of biohybrid robotics

As research in biohybrid robotics advances, the potential for innovative applications continues to expand. Future developments may lead to more sophisticated bio-robots capable of autonomous decision-making, learning, and evolution, blurring the lines between biological life and artificial machines.

With ongoing advancements in materials science, biotechnology, and robotics, biohybrid systems are poised to play a crucial role in the next generation of intelligent machines.

In summary, biohybrid robotics represents a fascinating convergence of biology and technology, offering the promise of machines that are more adaptable, efficient, and capable of interacting with the natural world in unprecedented ways.

As researchers continue to explore this promising field, the boundaries between life and machine are set to become increasingly indistinct, heralding a new era of robotic innovation.

The full study was published in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.


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