An illustration of robot jellies swimming in the ocean

An illustration of robot jellies swimming in the ocean

Wires embedded in the jellyfish stimulate its muscles to contract.

Wires embedded in the jellyfish stimulate its muscles to contract.

This diagram shows how scientists made the jellyfish hybrids.

This diagram shows how scientists made the jellyfish hybrids.

Jellyfish don’t move very fast. Much of their movement is from drifting along with ocean currents.

Jellyfish don’t move very fast. Much of their movement is from drifting along with ocean currents.

A group of jellyfish is called a bloom or swarm.

A group of jellyfish is called a bloom or swarm.

Introducing Jelly Bot

Posted: May 1, 2020

There’s more to this jellyfish than meets the eye. It’s half animal and half robot! 

Engineers at two California universities made the robotic critter. At least, they made the robot part of it. Their jellyfish-friendly device is about the size of a penny. It’s just big enough to hold a microchip and a small battery. They hooked the gizmo to the underside of something created by God—a live moon jellyfish. These jellies grow to be a little more than one foot wide.

Wires hooked the device to electrodes on the jellyfishes’ muscles. Did the jellyfish complain? Nope. The process was pain free. Electricity traveled through the wires. The jolts made the jellyfish pulse and move fast—nearly three times faster than normal. But even this didn’t seem to bother the jellies. Stressed jellyfish let out mucus. These didn’t. They didn’t seem troubled when the device was removed either. 

“Weʼre trying to take the best of what biology does naturally,” Caltech professor John Dabiri tells The Mercury News, “and combine it with the best of what we can do as engineers.”

Why go to all the trouble to speed up jellyfish? People are searching for new and better ways to explore the sea. Humans can go only so deep under the crushing dark of the ocean. Jellyfish can dive much farther. And these jellies can swim even faster than regular ocean explorer bots. Submarines may disturb the creatures people want to study. But jellyfish blend right in. Operating an ocean research ship can cost $20,000 each day. 

People attach sensors and trackers to wild animals all the time. But fastening on a behavior-changing device is new science. Could the tech affect the way jellyfish live and reproduce? Scientists will watch and see. Maybe adding gadgets to jellyfish comes with a cost they haven’t thought of yet. And will they actually find a way to steer the speedy jellyfish? That remains to be seen.

 What undersea discoveries might people make using “biohybrid” jellyfish? They may find even more jellies. People know of around 2,000 kinds. But scientists guess many thousands more exist.