Podcast: Jellyfish Cyborgs Help Explore The Oceans & Solve Climate Change

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Podcast: Jellyfish Cyborgs Help Explore The Oceans & Solve Climate Change

In this episode, we discuss how CalTech researchers have created bionic jellyfish to help us explore the oceans and better understand the impacts of climate change.

In this episode, we discuss how CalTech researchers have created bionic jellyfish to help us explore the oceans and better understand the impacts of climate change.


(3:09) - Building Bionic Jellyfish for Ocean Exploration

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What's up folks, welcome back to The NextByte. In today's episode, we're talking all about jellyfish, and we're gonna explain to you why scientists are turning jellyfish into cyborgs, what that means for us exploring the ocean, and why that reminds me of SpongeBob. Let's jump into it.

I'm Daniel, and I'm Farbod. And this is the NextByte Podcast. Every week, we explore interesting and impactful tech and engineering content from Wevolver.com and deliver it to you in bite sized episodes that are easy to understand, regardless of your background. 

Daniel: What's up peeps? Like we said, today we're talking all about the SpongeBob movie Chum Buckets, but in real life, right? Some awesome scientists who are turning jellyfish into cyborgs. Which for…

Farbod: I think this is the first time we're talking about cyborgs by the way. I don't think we've ever done it.

Daniel: It may be one of the first cyborg episodes we've ever covered. My grandpa, who listens to every single episode of the podcast by the way, will probably check us on that and be sure. But before we jump into that, I actually want to do a little passion plug moment.

Farbod: Do it, plug it in. Let us see that passion.

Daniel: Some awesome news. We just started a newsletter guys. We're gonna make it great. Imagine all the interesting and impactful technology we bring to you in the audio format and we send you on social media, et cetera. We're gonna do our darndest to write the best newsletter we've ever read. Very similar to how we worked hard to create a podcast that we didn't think existed in the marketplace that we're gonna do the same thing with this newsletter. And we think it's gonna be great. You've got the opportunity to join now and be one of our founding readers. I don't know how exactly we'll appreciate you, but we'll find a way to do it. Maybe it's like with this swag or something, but we need to appreciate you as one of our founding readers. We're going to include a direct link to sign up for the newsletter and the show notes. You should check that out. But also, you can just type it into your browser right now for listening, thenextbyte.com and then click on the button, read, and you can join the newsletter. It takes, honestly, like less than 10 seconds. Depending on how fast you can type your email, it might take two seconds.

Farbod: Do you have 5G? That's the big question here.

Daniel: That's true.

Farbod: But for folks, I like to think of us as consumers of our own content. Yeah. Sometimes I don't have time for a podcast. Sometimes I just wanna see what's going on without having to listen to a whole 20-minute episode, even though we try to make it quick and concise and whatnot. This is a great way to get that content. It takes, we even give you an estimate. When you open it up, it says, is we'll take a minute to read, a minute and a half to read. The commitment is low, but the sauce is still juicy.

Daniel: Well, yeah, I love that.

Farbod: Thank you.

Daniel: The sauce is still juicy.

Farbod: I thought of it and just said it.

Daniel: Like our goal is with the podcast, we're gonna try to make it as good as we can. We would appreciate your feedback, but the first step for all that, we'd hope you'd be willing to trust us on this and just go sign up for the newsletter. So please check that out. We've got it linked in the show notes, or you can go to thenextbyte.com, click on the button, read and it should take you anywhere from two to 10 seconds to sign up.

Farbod: Start reading. Yeah.

Daniel: All right. Now that we're done, we're done with our, done with our passion plug. I want to jump into today's article, which is about building bionic jellyfish for ocean exploration. This is an awesome topic coming out of Caltech. And essentially what they're working on here is trying to instrument jellyfish, turn them literally into cyborgs to help us explore the ocean. But I think it starts with a pretty interesting story. This team at Caltech was trying to look at jellyfish and gain some inspiration about how jellyfish swim in the ocean and use that as inspiration to build a new robot that was incredibly efficient, right? Jellyfish are one of the most, I think the most efficient swimmer in all the ocean. They can't do anything besides swim, sting, eat and breed. They don't even have brains, yet somehow jellyfish are everywhere in the ocean. They've explored every part of the ocean in a way that humans, despite all of our hard work and all of our technology, jellyfish reach places of the ocean that we can't reach.

Farbod: Exactly. Like some of our best and brightest have developed systems that can go deep into the ocean, but this brainless, I was going to say massless, but it's not massless. This like blob can go even deeper.

Daniel: The jellyfish can go everywhere. The jellyfish have seen everything honestly, the oceans are last frontier on Earth. Yeah. It's the only place on Earth, really, that we truly feel like we haven't explored. There's a lot of desire from the scientific community to understand what's going on in the deep ocean. And pretty much every way you do that, I'm going to try not to make too many jokes about that failed billionaire submarine. But pretty much every attempt to explore the deep ocean either involves spending a lot of money, spending a lot of energy, using a lot of resources. And honestly, most of them haven't even been super productive, right? Submarines are cool. We can't even get as deep with submarines as jellyfish can swim. So, this team is looking at jellyfish as an inspiration. Let's say, oh, let's learn how they swim. Let's learn how they're designed to build a new robot.

Farbod: Well, I think it's also worth noting that the folks that were looking at this, the jellyfish movement, they're from the aerospace department, if I'm not mistaken.

Daniel: I think so.

Farbod: Yeah, so they were focused on fluid dynamics here. They wanted to understand how this thing is moving so effectively in the water, so that they could draw inspiration from that.

Daniel: And so, they're looking at, like you said, the aerodynamics, or in this case, the hydrodynamics of how a jellyfish swims. You know, they're super-efficient from an energy perspective. So, from how many calories they consume to how much movement they're able to generate from that, they're the most efficient swimmers in the ocean. So, they're saying, let's study this, let's learn, let's figure out how the movement works. And then at some point they came to a realization, how about instead of trying to use jellyfish as inspirations to build new robots, just use the jellyfish. Let's just use the jellyfish themselves. So, jellyfish don't have brains. Honestly, they're not even super hydrodynamic, let's say. So, they, they saw this as an opportunity to one instrument the jellyfish, see if there's any opportunity to just basically throw a bunch of sensors on a jellyfish and kind of collect all the data while the jellyfish swim around. It kind of reminds me of when we talked about farmers using smart seeds, right? That they'll just kind of like spread these seeds and they'll go into the land. And then you'll get some feedback with all these sensors that are spread out everywhere in the world. Then they took a step further and they're like, no, no, no, instead of just making jellyfish being smart jellyfish with a bunch of sensors on them. Let's see what we can do to make jellyfish swim faster and swim deeper and swim better than they already swim. They were able to modify in some minor ways the hydrodynamics of the jellyfish. And they were also able to basically create a pacemaker to force the jellyfish to swim even faster.

Farbod: I mean, essentially, they were like, what if we became a parasite for this jellyfish that just made its life better? Like, we're not even gonna make it worse. We're gonna make everything better. It's gonna win. We're gonna win symbiotic relationship, right?

Daniel: It's crazy. So, I wanna kind of jump into what they've achieved here and with the, I think there's two main ingredients to the secret sauce and we kind of alluded to them already, but the first of them is this electronic pacemaker. So, what they did is they basically added this little gadget, it's like a little tiny machine that goes inside the jellyfish and it controls how fast they swim. So, it already makes use of their natural, super-efficient swimming style, but it basically prompts the jellyfish to pulse and jellyfish blob or swim more often, right? They're able to achieve three times swimming speed. The first time that they implemented this, this pacemaker. And when I first read this, I'm like, Oh man. So, are they just going to make jellyfish swim twice as fast and they're going to run out of energy and they're going to die? Like are jellyfish swimming this suicide mission, swimming this slow for a reason? But we were talking about this before we started here and saying, no, I think this is how jellyfish eat as well. It's how they swim around.

Farbod: Yeah, so them swimming is actually kind of a byproduct of them trying to find like food to eat. As they go and do that jellyfish jellying motion, they're intaking water and then getting particles that they use for energy out of it. Now this pacemaker, the reason it's so fascinating is that it disrupts their natural frequency of let's say like one jellyfish, one jellyfish move per second.

Daniel: We don't even… Is there a technical term for us to call that?

Farbod: You know what? This is my fault. If I paid attention to SpongeBob as a kid doing all those dances, I probably would have picked up on the term. But we did it. So here we are. But essentially, it disrupts that pattern. And it makes it so that there's more repetition. It's a higher frequency. And it ends up making them three times as fast with the pacemaker. But they only consume twice as much food. So, they're moving a lot faster, but their intake isn't linearly going even up with that. So, they're getting more food. That's not a bad thing. You know, we're not destroying the jellyfish population. And by the way, you know what? No, we'll get to it later. Go on. Go on.

Daniel: I was going to say the second part, I think of the secret sauce here is they wanted to find some space to add these sensors, right? And in addition, when they're studying the hydrodynamics of the jellyfish, they're saying, wow, they've got a really super-efficient swimming style. But the front the top of the jellyfish, let's say the dome blobby part. It's a round circle, that's great, but it actually could be conical, right? If it was a cone, that would be even more hydrodynamic and help them swim even more efficiently. So, they created this, they call it the forebody, but I'm just gonna call it the hat. They made this hat that sits on top of the jellyfish and it looks kind of like a cone, a rounded off cone. And it's a specially designed hat. It sits on the jellyfish. It holds all the sensors. Think about like, it's like the soft or is the sharp tip, the end of an arrow helps them split through the water faster. But it also creates space to hold all the sensors. So not only does it help them hold all their scientific instruments, it also helps the jellyfish swim even faster than the three times they got with the pacemaker. I think when they do pacemaker plus forebody, jellyfish are able to swim four and a half times faster.

Farbod: That's awesome. And by the way, I really want to point this out. I feel like if it was just a group of marine biologists that were looking at this. They probably wouldn't have grabbed onto, oh, like how can we make this jellyfish swim more air or hydrodynamically, right? But because they were aerodynamicists and they were looking at the fluid mechanics, if I'm not mistaken, they even said as they were studying the jellyfish, they put it into like liquid that had these particles that could be lit up by shining a laser at it so they could see the small flow of these fluids they were able to pick up that there is actually improvements we can make on the head of this blobby part. So that's the beauty of bringing these two worlds together is that you get insight from an area that is not traditionally associated with biology and understanding the sea and how jellyfish moved to begin with.

Daniel: And one of the things that I thought was really cool is they, when they implemented this, well, I guess two things, right? One of them that they had this focus the whole time, they're like, jellyfish don't have brains. We're basically creating a brain for these jellyfish that prompt it to swim deeper, that prompted to swim in a certain way and a certain speed to help us collect a bunch of information for science purposes. But they also wanted to do this in a way that they felt was ethical. So, they, as part of the research group, I think they called it a bioethicist. They brought in a bioethicist to make sure that what they were doing, they're achieving it in a very ethical manner. One of the ways that you mentioned is like, oh, they don't want to make it swim so fast that it uses up all its energy and dies. So, they actually tuned this pacemaker to make it swim three times faster, but it only consumes two times more energy. So, it's actually getting more food than it needs because of the way that it's swimming. One of the other things that they did is they also specifically designed the four body. That's this, had this hat that sits on top of the bell of the jellyfish. They use 3d printers to kind of create ballasts in there to make sure that this hat held enough air in it to make sure that the jellyfish still swim upright, even with all the extra weight on it. Think about the weight and size of a softball. That's all the extra instruments that they've added to the jellyfish. But also make sure that doesn't tip over in sync with all the extra weight. So, they've got some air, some water in there to make sure the jellyfish still is able to swim upright, which is the way that it is designed to swim. So, I appreciated the nuanced approach that they took here.

Farbod: Absolutely.

Daniel: They want to take advantage of the jellyfish, let's say but make it more symbiotic than parasitic. So, they're benefiting the jellyfish We're benefiting from the jellyfish. Jellyfish are able to swim faster They're able to cover more ground which is beneficial for our scientific studies. But it also helps them stay upright helps them get more food in this case, it truly feels like a win-win and this is all based off of a bunch of like literal rocket scientists looking at jellyfish saying how can we use this to help explore the ocean?

Farbod: And I'll extend your point of being ethical and for our fellow humans that care about the ecosystem and other animals and living beings, I think you'd like to know that jellyfish don't actually have a nervous system, so they can't feel pain, which means I feel like when they put the head on, if I'm not mistaken, it's kind of like a stake that goes into the jellyfish. It doesn't feel any pain during the administration as it has it on, and then even after it's done doing its mission, they can take it out and the jellyfish has no damage to it so it can go on living its life without any issues, which I think is amazing.

Daniel: Yeah, me too.

Farbod: And another thing I was gonna point out is when it came to their testing, I think again, it's worth noting, because they're aerodynamicists, they mentioned that they specifically did not wanna test in a horizontal tank because they know it can go forward and backward, but where they wanted to see the fruits of their labor really come to fruition was what happens as this thing's gonna try to dig deep and go underwater. So, they built a very large vertical tank and they had the jellyfish try to go down while they were essentially pushing a stream of water at it to emulate that pressure. And that's how they were able to achieve the four and a half times efficiency in being faster.

Daniel: And accurately measuring it.

Farbod: Accurately measuring it.

Daniel: Yeah, I thought the vertical aquarium was really cool as well. But honestly, like just looking at this, right? They started with jellyfish, are the ocean's most efficient swimmers. How can we copy exactly what they're doing? in one of our own robots to help study the ocean. And then it turns into this situation where they're actually just putting the instruments straight on the jellyfish. This whole pacemaker and hat, let's call it, set up these two main parts. Costs, I think, a little bit less than $20. And these jellyfish robots can swim in deep water. They can swim in shallow water. They can swim in hot water. They can swim in cold water same species of jellyfish thrive just as well in, you know, the waters in the Arctic circle as they do in the tropic waters of the Caribbean. So, it's like no preference from the jellyfish perspective. And they're trying to build sensor packages that can also withstand those ranges of temperatures and pressures.

Farbod: And that's the challenge.

Daniel: And that's the challenge, which is, again, just shows just how awesome jellyfish are. So, they're still working on the specific sensors that they're going to put on this and then go send these out into the real world. But one of the things that I thought was worth mentioning is that this is like a much cheaper and more innovative way of exploring all over the ocean. One of the things that they mentioned is if you were to try and take like one of these like robotic submarines and rent it for a day to run it underwater, it'd cost $50,000 per day. I'm thinking, man, you can put out 2,500 robotic jellyfish for the cost of running a robotic submarine for just one day. And these jellyfish could go all over the ocean. They could run for days, days, days, days, days. I don't even know the battery life on these things, so to speak, but I'm guessing you can run these for a really long time. These robotic jellyfish versus just getting one day out of a robotic submarine. This seems like one of the potential ways that we could truly start to explore the ocean as our final frontier.

Farbod: For sure.

Daniel: Collect areas of interest, collect a lot of data, and then maybe go send in our robotic submarine to do some close-up exploration.

Farbod: Yeah, and even in tune with where we're talking about respecting our ecosystem, with climate change kind of accelerating with the growth of our population and our emissions and whatnot, being able to deploy so many smart sensors into the ocean that can explore and go to the varying depths while collecting data like temperatures, salinity, oxygen levels, things like that, which these sensor packages can, by the way, we can gather a lot of data about how our ocean is changing with very little money, which is great because more data, more analysis means better understanding of our planet and what we're doing to it. So even taking a step back from deep ocean exploration, because they're still figuring out the sensor package and whatnot, this has direct value add to marine biologists, environmental scientists, so on and so forth.

Daniel: Yeah, I agree, right? And we've talked on this podcast a lot about trying to monitor what's going on in the ocean and how that impacts our global climate. We've talked a lot about really interesting satellites that are trying to achieve that. We talked about sending out robots into the ocean to try and understand this. This seems like one of the most realistic and cost-effective versions of that. One thing I also wanted to mention, so right now they've got the ability to control how deep these jellyfish swim just based on the pacemaker, which prompts them to swim and basically push themselves deeper into the ocean. One of the other things that they're planning on working on as well, which I think is pretty cool is starting to learn horizontal control as well as vertical. So, then they can truly just like hitch a ride, you know, put these sensor packages on and hitch a ride on jellyfish. And then they can truly control the swarm of jellyfish swimming all over the ocean, which I think would be a lot more useful than maybe being just completely subject to underwater currents and stuff like that to control the horizontal orientation of the jellyfish as opposed to just the vertical orientation.

Farbod: It's an exciting time to be an environmental scientist and a sci-fi fan because things are getting weird in a good way.

Daniel: Yeah, I mean, quite literally, no sensationalization about it at all. These are cyborg jellyfish. And they are going to be super awesome toward collecting data for us. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the reference to the SpongeBob movie. We were talking about this before we started recording. I'm like, I feel like this reminds me of something from pop culture and from what's like, it's the chum buckets from the SpongeBob movie. And we rewatched the clip together and it's like these chum bucket helmets and everyone's wearing them on their head. And then when they pull them on and it goes over their faces, Plankton gets complete control over them and Plankton forces them to swim all throughout the ocean and then make their way to the chum bucket where they go and buy their burgers instead. But I thought that was really interesting. It seems like a pretty similar approach here, right? We're going to put these chum buckets on top of these jellyfishes head, control them, but in a more ethical way, right? Plankton is the super villain as opposed to in this case, I feel like our Marine biologists and our astrophysicists here that teamed up here from Caltech are kind of like our superheroes.

Farbod: And we can spin it however we want, but at the end of the day, we are Plankton. That's what we've learned. And on that dark note, would you like to do us a favor and wrap up the episode?

Daniel: Yeah. All right.

Farbod: Give us a yell high five, drop those bombs.

Daniel: This is crazy, man. But the secret to exploring the deep ocean lies within jellyfish. Everyone says oceans are the last frontier, the last place on earth that we have yet to explore. And scientists have figured out a way to turn jellyfish into tiny little cyborg robots. They give them a special hat and a tiny computer brain. It helps them swim throughout the ocean. Jellyfish are already the most efficient swimmers in the ocean. And now they're going to start carrying a bunch of tiny tools and sensors to help us explore the deep waters of the ocean and share secrets about the ocean with scientists. Kind of reminds me of the Chum Bucket helmets in the SpongeBob movie, but in a more ethical way. These jellyfish can swim four and a half times faster. And it's probably, as far as I've heard, the most cheap and most innovative way for us to start to learn about deep sea conditions will help us fill in the picture on what's going on in the ocean and also how that has an impact on our global climate.

Farbod: Boom. We need a soundboard because that's a buzzer. Beep beep. Bum bum bum bum. There you go. Rapphorn. That's what I was trying to do, the Rapphorn. Thank you, folks, for listening. And as always, we'll catch in the next one.

Daniel: Peace.

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The Next Byte: We're two engineers on a mission to simplify complex science & technology, making it easy to understand. In each episode of our show, we dive into world-changing tech (such as AI, robotics, 3D printing, IoT, & much more), all while keeping it entertaining & engaging along the way.


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