A team of mechanical engineers at Virginia Tech has been in the process of designing an autonomous robotic jellyfish for the past five and a half years. While the funding for the assignment is drawing to a close, by no means does that signal the end of the road for the developers.
The United States Navy gave Tech, along with other universities such as UCLA and California Institute of Technology, a grant to design an underwater robot in the form of a jellyfish. Tech has received three extensions on the initial 3-year grant and is looking for financial aid to further support the project.
“I don’t think it’s that big of a concern to be honest,” said Colin Stewart, a graduate student in mechanical engineering whose role on the project is to compute the swimming motion of the jellyfish. “I think that we have a few sources that are pretty solid.”
A couple of the sources include the Navy once again, as well as the National Science Foundation. Even though finances are now in question, it hasn’t stopped the team from continuing its research.
“I’m still working on the robots, and as far as I know, there’s no end date as to when we are going to stop doing that,” said Alex Villanueva, a postdoctoral student in mechanical engineering, who works with the robot design aspect of the project.
The Navy’s hope is to receive a product that uses little energy, handles abuse from the environment and has the ability to remain in the ocean for weeks or months at a time without receiving attention from other researchers.
Currently, similar marine research requires an entire team working with the robot, staying in the area until the research is complete, bringing it back for maintenance and then repeating the sequence.
“The whole vision of our project is to develop something that is cheap to produce, it’s cheap to operate and it lasts for a long period of time,” said Villanueva.
The robot will have a wide range of applications, from military surveillance to the observation of migratory patterns of marine life to purifying ocean water after oil spills.
According to Villanueva, early difficulties the team faced included discovering how the natural animal maneuvered and figuring out how to replicate that movement in the form of a robot.
“A jellyfish is very simple, but there’s also very little known, at least at that point, as to how it (swims),” he said.
Stewart said similar problems arose when he first attempted to model the movement of a jellyfish from a mathematical standpoint. However, after the initial struggles, the project has gotten off of the ground with successful results.
“The ones recently we’ve been making are a lot more lifelike,” Stewart said. “The latest ones have just looked better, swam better, (have) been more efficient. We’re getting close to the natural animal itself as far as how fast they swim.”
Project achievements have included the design and creation of multiple types of jellyfish robots, including a 5-foot 7 inch 170 pound machine called Cyro which is the largest jellyfish robot ever made.
“Every robot we did, we’re basically achieving something with that robot that hadn’t been done before,” Villanueva said.
The team has received praises from the Navy as well.
“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback, a lot of interaction with some of the guys in the Navy who’ve offered us suggestions,” Stewart said. “They’ve been really impressed.”
According to Stewart, the Navy categorizes its research projects into three different tiers. The first is the basic research level, which is where Tech’s jellyfish project currently resides. In the second level, the project is taken closer to deployment by applying various assessments such as failure tests. Lastly, improvements are made in order to complete the product.
While the jellyfish team has a long path to travel before its robot can be deployed, progress thus far has been clear and well received, leaving the team optimistic for the future.