Robotics Update – Biomimickry and a Jellyfish named Robojelly

People who study Biomimetics look at biological processes and try to mimic them in technology. After all nature has tooled around with DNA-inspired creations from the dawn of life on this planet nearly 4 billion years ago. And humans have learned from nature. Some modern examples of biomimickry include:

  • winglets on airframes, aping the long wing feathers of raptors and vultures breaking up air turbulence and improving fuel consumption in modern commercial jets.
  • Prosthetics that mimic real limbs
  • Cochlear implants that restore hearing.

Through mimicking nature we have made great technical strides. To the ones described above add another.

As reported in the journal, Smart Materials and Structures, Virginia Tech’s is Alex Villanueva  has developed a robotic device that uses the propulsion and rowing actions of a jellyfish. His creation is Robojelly seen in the picture below.

Robojelly looks and moves like a jellyfish. It derives power from the interaction of seawater and the alloy composites used in its construction. Source: Virginia Tech

Robojelly has one other characteristic that has significance for other types of robot designs, the ability to derive the energy to drive it from the surrounding environment. It does this using a platinum-based surface which catalyzes the hydrogen in seawater to create an exothermic reaction. The heat from the exothermic reaction makes Robojelly’s artificial muscles, called actuators, contract the bell-shaped dome expelling water to propel it forward.

The actuators are composed of nickel-titanium shape-memory alloy and sheets of carbon nanotubes coated with platinum powder. The material has been given the name BISMAC standing for Bio-Inspired Shape Memory Alloy Composites. The byproduct of the hydrogen reaction is water vapour.

Robojelly can run indefinitely deriving all the energy it needs from the seawater that surrounds it. Add a packet of sensors and it becomes a surveillance and telemetry tool that can measure and study the ocean without ever having to stop for fuel. To view Robojelly in action click here.


Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...

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