Alex Villanueva and the experimental robotic jellyfish that one day could could patrol the seas for the military and for environmental safeguard.
Virginia Tech College of
Engineering researchers are working on a multi-university, nationwide project
for the U.S. Navy that one day will put life-like autonomous robot jellyfish in
waters around the world.
The main focus of the
program is to understand the fundamentals of propulsion mechanisms used by
nature, said Shashank Priya, associate professor of mechanical
engineering and materials science and engineering at Virginia Tech, and lead researcher on the
project. Future uses of the robot jellyfish could include conducting military
surveillance, cleaning oil spills, and monitoring the environment.
This isn’t science
fiction. It’s happening now in a lab inside Virginia Tech’s Durham Hall, where
a 600-gallon tank is regularly filled with water as small robotic jellyfish are
tested for movement and energy self-creation and usage. A synthetic rubbery
skin, squishy in one’s hand, mimics the sleek jellyfish skin and is placed over
a bowl-shaped device covered in electronics. When moving, they look weirdly
The robotic creatures are
called RoboJelly are being designed to operate on their own energy versus, say,
sea crabs, or mollusks.
“Jellyfish are attractive
candidates to mimic because of their ability to consume little energy owing to
a lower metabolic rate than other marine species, survivability in varying
water conditions, and possession of adequate shape for carrying a payload,”
Priya said. “They inhabit every major oceanic area of the world and are capable
of withstanding a wide range of temperatures and in fresh and salt waters. Most
species are found in shallow coastal waters, but some have been found in depths
7,000 m below sea level.”
Several sizes of the
RoboJelly are under various phases of development, some the size of a man’s
hand, while another is more than five-foot wide. The latter robotic creature is
too large for the laboratory tank and is tested in a swimming pool, and is not yet
ready for wide public debut, said Priya, director of the Center for
Energy Harvesting Materials and Systems.
Priya added that, in
addition to a range of sizes, jellyfish display a wide variety of shapes and
colors, and are able to move on their own vertically, but depend upon ocean
currents for horizontal movement. With no central nervous system, jellyfish
instead use a diffused nerve net to control movement and can complete complex
functions. “So far, our focus has been using the experimental models to
understand the fundamental principles of nature,” Priya said of the jellyfish.
The idea for a robotic
jellyfish did not originate at Virginia Tech, but rather the U.S. Naval
Undersea Warfare Center and the Office of Naval Research. Virginia Tech, is
teaming with four U.S. universities on the multi-year, $5 million project:
University of Texas at Dallas is handling nanotechnology based actuators and
sensors; Providence College in Rhode Island is handling biological studies,
University of California, Los Angeles, is handling electrostatic and optical
sensing/controls, and Stanford University is overseeing chemical and pressure
sensing. Virginia Tech is building the jellyfish body models, integrating fluid
mechanics and developing control systems. Several other major U.S.
universities and industries also are on the project, as well as collaborators
and advisory board members.
The project has been in
the works for nearly four years now and has garnered much attention form media
outlets from The Los Angeles Times to Popular Science to New Scientist and several marine-related trade publications.
Several more years of work remain on the project before any models are released
for military reconnaissance or object-tracking operations, be it with cameras,
sensors, or other devices.
uses abound for the RoboJelly. “The robots could be used to study aquatic life,
map ocean floors, monitor ocean currents, monitor water quality, [or to] monitor sharks,” said Alex Villanueva of St-Jacques, New-Brunswick,
Canada, a doctoral
student in mechanical engineering working under Priya. Other ideas: Detecting
ocean pollutants, to, possibly, being used as clean-up filters during another
oil spill similar to the Deepwater Horizon melee during the summer of 2010 in
the Gulf of Mexico.
“The interesting part of
the jellyfish research is that it is so open. No one had done research on a
jellyfish vehicle to the extend we have. This allows for a lot of freedom and
creativity in our design as opposed to optimization type of work which can be
very boring,” said Villanueva.
The smaller models are
being developed to be powered by hydrogen, naturally abundant in water, which
is a huge step in autonomous craft. The larger models may be operated by
electric batteries built into the robotic creature. In both cases, the
jellyfish must be able to operate on their own for months or longer at a time
as engineers likely won’t be able to capture and repair the robots, or replace
power sources, Priya said.
“Our biologists have been
studying tens of different species of jellyfish with variety of form factors
grouped as ‘prolate’ or ‘oblate’ found all around the world,” Priya said. “Most
of these species adopt either rowing or jetting form of propulsion. We are
investigating both these propulsion mechanisms.”
Building the robotic
jellyfish is a true example of interdisciplinary research activity, said Priya,
listing off materials scientists, mechanical engineers, biologist, chemist,
physicist, electrical engineers, and ocean engineers as being involved in the
“It’s very exciting when
everything comes together and we can create experimental models that can
surpass millions of years of evolution,” he said. “Nature has done great job in
designing propulsion systems but it is slow and tedious process. On the other
hand, current status of technology allows us to create high performance systems
in matter of few months.”
Source: Virginia Institute of Technology