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Published September 2022 | public
Journal Article

Bio-Inspired Ocean Exploration


Substantial efforts have been made to expand our knowledge of the physics, biology, chemistry, and geography of the ocean using state-of-the-art measurement tools. With new global projects and technological advances, the collaborative efforts of the Ocean Decade (2021–2030) are well on the way to revolutionizing our knowledge of ocean sciences and sustainability. Yet even today, over three-quarters of the seafloor is still unmapped, more than 90% of marine life still awaits discovery and classification, and the number of ocean sensors required to study global phenomena at sufficient temporal and spatial resolutions is seemingly intractable. To address this challenge, new approaches such as bio-inspired robotics can expand our existing toolbox and bridge this knowledge gap. The concept of biology-inspired engineering has emerged as a powerful tool to complement traditional engineering approaches to technology development. For example, specific swimming features of jellyfish and fish have been applied to a variety of fields, from vehicular propulsion to wind energy to medical diagnostics. In particular, jellyfish are advantageous model organisms because of their energy efficiency, with the lowest known cost of transport compared to other animals, as well as their ubiquity and survivability in various ocean environments. In this article we highlight the evolution of research into jellyfish-inspired robotic constructs and their potential applications in ocean exploration. After initial projects using entirely engineered materials (i.e., jellyfish-inspired submarine propellers) and tissue engineering methods (i.e., rat cardiac cells seeded on flexible films), recent work to integrate microelectronic systems onto live jellyfish demonstrates that their swimming speeds can be increased (up to three times compared to their baselines) and their energy efficiency can be improved (up to four times compared to their baselines). This shows promise for the robotic control of jellyfish in real-world oceanic environments, where the animals are already distributed globally. Future work can improve the maneuverability of these bio-hybrid jellyfish robots, incorporate miniaturized sensors to profile regions of interest, and ultimately deploy swarms of these low-power, low-cost robots to obtain high-resolution data and improve ocean climate models. The synergy of bio-inspired technologies with existing ocean measurement tools holds promise to push the frontiers of ocean exploration and stewardship.

Additional Information

The Roger Revelle Commemorative Lecture Series was created by the Ocean Studies Board of the National Academies in honor of Roger Revelle to highlight the important links between ocean sciences and public policy. John O. Dabiri, the twenty-third annual lecturer, spoke on April 28, 2022, at a virtual event hosted by the National Academy of Sciences. The authors gratefully acknowledge seminal contributions to this work from a diverse set of students and colleagues, including Kakani Katija, Lydia Ruiz, Robert Whittlesey, Janna Nawroth, Jack Costello, Sean Colin, Monty Graham, Brad Gemmell, Kelly Sutherland, and Kit Parker. Funding from the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation was essential to conduct this research.

Additional details

August 22, 2023
October 24, 2023