A robotics research project at Virginia Tech is coming along swimmingly.
A group of student researchers at Tech, in collaboration with three other schools, are working on the creation of a robot that could one day swim throughout the ocean like a jellyfish.
The project is funded through a $6 million grant from the Office of Naval Research. Once completed, the “Robojelly” could have both military and civilian applications, according to Alex Villanueva, a Tech mechanical engineering graduate student who has been working on building the robotic jellyfish vehicle since 2008.
“The ultimate goal is to have jellyfish vehicles swimming around the ocean doing all these different missions,” Villanueva said.
Possible uses for the Robojelly include spying and surveillance for the Navy, as well as civilian uses such as monitoring the migration patterns of different schools of fishes, looking at ocean water currents, detecting chemicals, determining water quality and even ocean floor mapping.
For right now, however, Villanueva said he is working on creating a realistic jellyfish vehicle and finding ways to make it work for long periods of time.
“We’re actually pretty close as far as the formation and performance,” he said. “(But) we’re still very far from being able to send out a jelly robot into the ocean.”
The idea for this project comes from a concept known as biomimetics, or the study of the structure and function of different biological entities. The goal of this particular project is to mimic the inner workings of a jellyfish as perfectly as possible to create the most realistic product.
John “Jack” Costello, a biology professor at Providence College in Rhode Island, has been collaborating with the team at Tech.
“To create vehicles that emulate (jellyfish) require not only that you work along the vehicle, but that you also learn a lot more about the organisms you’re emulating,” Costello said.
Costello and his colleagues are currently researching the ways in which jellyfish maneuver and turn within the ocean.
“We have had a model that can swim somewhat like a jellyfish for a while now, but we have not developed the ability to turn and maneuver,” he said.
Jellyfish consist of about 95 percent water, according to Shashank Priya, an associate professor in material sciences and engineering and Villanueva’s advisor. Through this project, the team is researching how an animal that contains only 5 percent body mass is able to swim at certain velocities, maintain location, and capture and digest food — a concept that Priya finds intriguing.
“By answering all these questions, we are able to basically provide an understanding of how to design a vehicle that can propel in water at a very minimal energy cost and also using the very least number of parts,” Priya said.
The Robojelly that Villanueva is currently focusing on is a replication of the common Aurelia aurita species, which are also known as “moon jellys.” Future projects will include creating robotic jellyfish that are up to 5 feet in diameter, such as the Cyanea capillata, also known as the “lion’s mane jellyfish.” One team at Tech is even working on a replica of the Humboldt Squid.
“Moving forward I think you will see some other fish, which we are trying to investigate,” Priya said, “and you will see Robojellies of different shapes and sizes inspired by some other forms of national jellyfishes.”
In addition to Tech and Providence College, the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Texas at Dallas and Stanford University have made significant contributions to the project.
“Because of this large team, we are able to actually move faster in the program, because everybody is able to provide a very special role in the development of the vehicle,” Priya said.
Villaneuva echoed this sentiment.
“It’s kind of cool to work with all these people and all the different technology that will eventually — hopefully — be applied to this vehicle,” he said.