Mention unmanned drones these days and you’ll conjure images of tiny plane-like vehicles packing serious heat. Mention unmanned deep sea drones that look like umbrella-shaped aquatic critters and you’ll probably conjure something more like a blank stare.
And yet the notion of a lifelike jellyfish robot isn’t new: Researchers at the University of Texas in Dallas, Providence College in Rhode Island, the University of California in Los Angeles, Stanford University and Virginia Tech have been jointly working on the technology for years. Last March, for instance, we wrote about their work on Robojelly, a silicon-based, hand-sized robot that wriggles like a jellyfish by flexing synthetic muscles to pump out water.
Why not something sleeker or more powerful, say an octopus or a shark? Because the way a jellyfish moves is so efficient that it’s even been studied for non-oceanic engineering purposes, from crafting more efficient submarines and balloon-like flying devices to developing superior alternatives to propeller-based wind turbines.
Imagine a fully-realized version of such a robot running underwater surveillance missions for the U.S. Navy — the marine version of a weaponless drone, in other words, perhaps poking around someone’s oceanfront property (or, heaven forbid, employed in a civilian capacity by ignoble paparazzi to stalk celebrities). Cool, but a little creepy, right?
Also: not a pet project. The researchers have a $5 million grant from the U.S. Naval Undersea Warfare Center and the Office of Naval Research to build robots capable of autonomously scooting around the ocean blue. Their purpose could range from undersea spying for the military to more innocuous activities, say keeping tabs on environmental issues like oil spills or creating detailed maps of the ocean floor.
Now meet ”Cyro,” the 5-foot, 7-inch, 170-pound latest iteration of this robo-jellyfish project. That’s considerably bigger than Robojelly, in part because a larger robo-jellyfish could carry a more substantial payload, including enough power to stay in the ocean for lengthy periods of time, say weeks, months or longer still. Also: Robojelly required a tether to provide power — Cyro requires none.
According to Geek.com, Cyro consists of a central waterproof shell linked to eight mechanical, segmented, linearly actuated “arms,” over which a piece of pliable silicone is stretched, allowing the arms to flex the sheet and emulate an actual jellyfish’s movements. Cyro gets its name from a species of jellyfish dubbed Cyanea capillata, or “lion’s mane” as it’s more commonly known, plus the word robot. The lion’s mane jellyfish is the world’s largest, found in northerly waters, with some specimens’ bells (the main body) exceeding eight feet in diameter.
The research team still has miles to go before Cyro’s action-ready– it currently gets just four hours from its nickel-metal hydride battery. And it’s not the only game in town, with underwater surveillance research extending to projects like Georgia Tech’s intriguing one to develop collaborative, autonomous robotic entities with specialized functions — robots that communicate with each other to perform distributed roles. Imagine a sea of aquatic micro-bots swimming somewhere out there, doing whatever military-minded micro-bots do.
Still, nothing quite beats the uncanny visual of an underwater robot pulsing along like a jellyfish — almost indistinguishable from an actual jellyfish — potentially keeping tabs on all our maritime moves.