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 utilized by nature, said Shashank Priya, associate professor of mechanical engineering andmaterials 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 alive.
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 meters 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 lab 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.
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.