Hat-wearing cyborg jellyfish could one day explore the ocean depths

To better understand the ocean’s overall health, researchers hope to harness some of evolution’s simplest creatures as tools to assess aquatic ecosystems. All they need is $20 worth of materials, a 3D-printer, and some jellyfish hats. 

Jellyfish first began bobbing through Earth’s ancient oceans at least half a billion years ago, making them some of the planet’s oldest creatures. In all that time, however, their biology has remained pretty consistent—a bell-shaped, brainless head attached to a mass of tentacles, all of which is composed of around 95 percent water. Unfortunately, that same steady state can’t be said of their habitat, thanks to humanity’s ongoing environmental impacts.

Although it’s notoriously dangerous, technologically challenging, and expensive for humans to reach the ocean’s deepest regions, jellyfish do it all the time. Knowing this, a team of Caltech researchers, led by aeronautics and mechanical engineering professor John Dabiri, first created a jellyfish-inspired robot to explore the abyss. While the bot’s natural source material is Earth’s most energy efficient swimmer, the mechanical imitation couldn’t quite match the real thing. Dabiri and colleagues soon realized another option: bringing the robotics to actual jellyfish.