Bizarre robot jellyfish could save our dying underwater ecosystems

Robot jellyfish could soon be patrolling a coastline near you, if this innovative band of engineers at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) have anything to do with it. The team have developed a fleet of man-made robotic jellyfish able to monitor coral reefs and other endangered ecosystems.

The 20cm-wide subaquatic devices are encircled by hydraulic rubber “tentacles”, which they use to propel themselves forwards. The effect is part futuristic, part disconcerting, as the jellyfish glide coolly over the seabeds they’re designed to monitor. To make the setup even more unsettling, the bots are designed to look like the notorious moon jellyfish during their larval stage Which is, of course, marine-biology-speak for “illuminated”.

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But what do these man-made jellyfish have that, say, a drone submarine lacks? That’s simple, explains FAU’s Professor Erik Engeberg, “Mini-submarines are rigid and typically use a propeller for locomotion.

“The propellers can chop up the reef and the tough shell of a sub can cause damage to delicate ecosystems if there is a collision.”

One’s got to wonder where Prof Engeberg’s sage advice was when Elon Musk was engineering his own mini-sub. More on that indiscretion here.

As for the jellyfish robots, they’re engineered with the environment in mind; “The soft jellyfish robot can avoid these problems with its unorthodox design and locomotion strategy, inspired by biology,” explains Prof Engeberg.

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Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time that scientists have engineered jellyfish robots, although FAU’s efforts are much more compact than their predecessors. They’re also untethered, which makes for ample free roaming and extensive coverage, although does run the risk of having a few go awry. Still, this doesn’t phase Prof Engeberg; “It is important to track their locations so that they can be retrieved after a mission,” he explains.

However, it’s all fun and games until the rubbery devices become dinner to some poor unsuspecting turtle (or sea mammal, large fish etc). Swallowing one of the bots could be harmful to marine life, and experts are recommending that the devices come equipped with an audible warning system, or perhaps an unappealing taste, in order to stave off oblivious predators. Although, natural selection and all that.

There you have it. What is it with tech and animals? First we had the “smart beehive”, and now this. Seems now’s as good a time as any to resurrect the old “Internet of Stings” pun…

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