Scientists create cyborg jellyfish with swimming superpowers

They're like regular jellyfish, but faster and more awesome.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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This artist illustration shows what the robotic-hybrid jellyfish look like. 

Rebecca Konte/Caltech

Darth Vader and RoboCop now have some cyborg company in the form of superpowered jellyfish. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have developed a swim controller that turns regular jellyfish into speed demons.

The device enhances a jellyfish's natural pulsing motion that it uses to move around in the water. "The new prosthetic uses electrical impulses to regulate -- and speed up -- that pulsing, similar to the way a cardiac pacemaker regulates heart rate," Caltech said in a release on Wednesday.

The microelectronic prosthetic propels the cyborg jellyfish to swim almost three times faster while using just twice the metabolic energy of their unmodified peers. The prosthetics can be removed without harming the jellyfish. 

The research team published its findings in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday.

The scientists aren't making superpowered jellies just for fun. The cyborg invertebrates could potentially carry sensors into the ocean to gather data from otherwise hard-to-reach locations.

The Navy funded a jellyfish-inspired robot project in 2012, but the biohybrid approach has some advantages. The cyborgs don't have the power limitations of full-on robots and don't need to be tethered to an external power source.

"If we can find a way to direct these jellyfish and also equip them with sensors to track things like ocean temperature, salinity, oxygen levels, and so on, we could create a truly global ocean network where each of the jellyfish robots costs a few dollars to instrument and feeds themselves energy from prey already in the ocean," said Caltech engineer and research lead John Dabiri.

It sounds like sci-fi, but an army of cyborg jellies may play a role in the future of ocean exploration and monitoring. 

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