Squids and jellyfish inspired scientists to make highly efficient underwater robots

We need better tools to study such sensitive ocean environments as coral reefs and isolated ecosystems. Robots are great at that, but what kind of a design should such a research robot have? Scientists At the Universities of Edinburgh and Southampton think that the best design for such a robot would be inspired by two of nature’s smartest swimmers.

Aurelia aurita jellyfish are incredibly efficient swimmers – their cost of propulsion is lower than that of running animals or bony fish. Image credit: Luc Viatour via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Those swimmers – squid and jellyfish. They are able to swim rather quickly while also using their energy very efficiently. Also, their smooth strong movements are less disruptive in a marine environment than our current man-made technologies like propellers and jets. These squid and jellyfish-inspired robots could help us take a peek at the most sensitive ocean environments, including coral reefs, but they could also be used in researching underwater archaeological sites.

Squid and jellyfish don’t have a skeletal structure. They swim by expanding and contracting a flexible internal cavity, generating a jet of fluid that propels them forward. Scientists say that this way of swimming is remarkably efficient. For example,  Aurelia aurita jellyfish is the most efficient swimmer in nature – its cost of propulsion is better than that of running and flying animals and bony fish. And so, scientists created a robotic mechanism, which mimics that biological movement.

The mechanism has a small piston in the top half of the robot, which moves the belly of the robot producing  jets of fluid to propel the machine through the water. There were some attempts before to propel robots using jets of water, but they involved pushing water through a rigid tube, which is not as efficient. Now scientists wanted to work with elastic materials to mimic biology and create very efficient and quick swimming machines. The new squid and jellyfish-inspired robot is 10 to 50 times more efficient than typical underwater exploration robots powered by propellers.

Dr Gabriel Weymouth, one of the authors of the study, said: “There are still many challenges and exciting possibilities to explore with soft underwater robotic technologies. The team is now looking to extend the concept behind this robot to a fully manoeuvrable and autonomous underwater vehicle capable of sensing and navigating its environment.” Although this is just the very beginning of the research, we are hopeful that this robot will begin testing fairly soon.

Underwater research robots are very useful in several fields. A jellyfish-like robot could blend in with its surrounding a lot better,  being less invasive in marine ecosystems. It would also move very efficiently, preserving energy and possibly travelling further. It will be interesting to see what kind of sensors and scientific instruments scientists can fit into this robot.

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