The coral reefs of the world are in dire straits, and they’re being damaged far more quickly then they can repair themselves and heal. That’s bad news for all of us — not just scuba diving enthusiasts. Coral reefs are an essential part of ocean ecosystems that provide shelter for fish and other sea life to breed and develop. To prevent damage to the fragile coral reefs, we need to monitor their health and the surrounding environmental conditions. New robot jellyfish may be able to gather that data without inadvertently causing damage themselves.
These soft robots were developed as part of a joint effort between scientists from Florida Atlantic University and the US Office of Naval Research. The choice to mimic jellyfish wasn’t an arbitrary one, it directly resulted from the need for non-destructive monitoring. It would be entirely counterproductive to use a bulky, rigid robot that could smash and damage the reefs they’re trying so hard to protect. So, the scientists designed the robots to resemble the soft-bodied larvae of a moon jellyfish.
The team 3D-printed the robots’ bodies from soft, flexible silicon rubber. The material is sturdy enough to give some structural support and to provide efficient propulsion. That propulsion is particularly unique, and it works by directing water through hydraulic networks and out of actuators on the tentacles. It’s controlled with a Teensy board, and gives the robots the maneuverability they require without risking damage to the reefs. Only five prototypes have been created so far, but the scientists plan to use the robot jellyfish to monitor real coral reefs once the design has been perfected.