Underwater spy robot created by Virginia Tech researchers

Researchers at Virginia Tech have built an autonomous, robotic jellyfish that could someday work as an underwater military spy.

The Virginia Tech College of Engineering unveiled the prototype robot, named Cyro. The life-like, autonomous robotic jellyfish weighs 170 pounds and is 5 feet 7 inches in height.

A handout photo from the school shows researchers swimming around with Cyro.

The research is backed by the U.S. Naval Undersea Warfare Center and the Office of Naval Research, which are looking for self-powering, autonomous robots to do underwater surveillance or to monitor the environment.

Cyro is the successor to the RoboJelly, a robotic jellyfish that the same research team unveiled last year. Unlike Cyro, RoboJelly is a small machine - about the size of a man's hand, according to Virginia Tech.

"A larger vehicle will allow for more payload, longer duration and longer range of operation," said Alex Villanueva, a doctoral student working on the project, in a statement. "Biological and engineering results show that larger vehicles have a lower cost of transport, which is a metric used to determine how much energy is spent for traveling."

The researchers said they chose to base their underwater robots on jellyfish because of their low metabolic rate, which enables them to consume little energy.

Jellyfish also appear in many different sizes, shapes and colors, which gives scientists different designs to work with. Jellyfish also are found in every major oceanic area, which would help camouflage robots conducting surveillance around the world.

Scientists at Virginia Tech aren't the only ones working on swimming robots.

In the summer of 2010, MIT researchers reported that they used nanotechnology to build a robot that can autonomously navigate across the surface of the ocean to clean up oil spills. Scientists hope that someday a fleet of these aquatic robots can clean up oil spills more quickly and cheaply than current methods.

In 2009, scientists at the University of Bath built a swimming robot powered by a fin instead of a more boat-like propeller.

Gymnobot, the robotic fish, has a fin that runs the length of the robot's rigid "fish" body, undulating to make waves in the water, propelling the robot forward or backward. The robotic design is based on the Amazonian knifefish.

In this most recent work on swimming robots, Cyro is modeled and named after the jellyfish cyanea capillata, also known as the Lion's Mane.

"We hope to improve on this robot and reduce power consumption and improve swimming performance as well as better mimic the morphology of the natural jellyfish," Villanueva stated. "Our hopes for Cyro's future is that it will help understand how the propulsion mechanism of such animal scales with size."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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