Why Does the Navy Need a Giant Robotic Jellyfish?

The Navy's stayed vague about what exactly these aqua-drones will do, but common sense suggests it could be something violent.

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Apr 2 2013, 8:25pm

Honest question: What's up with all the robotic jellyfish? At the end of last week, a team of Virginia Tech researchers revealed the first look at a hefty new robotic jellyfish that it's building for the U.S. Navy. Its name is Cyro.

This is not the Navy's first robotic jellyfish. A year ago, America learned about the descriptively named Robojelly, a self-charging blob-bot built by the same team hailed or its deceptively natural-looking ability to swim through water and morph into new shapes much like a real jellyfish. Ultimately, it's supposed to be equipped with a stealthy engine that sucks hydrogen out of the water around it for fuel.

The new robot is a lot like the old robot but bigger. Whereas the Robojelly was roughly the size of a human hand, the Cyro is the size of an entire human, at 5' 7" wide and weighing 170 pounds. It moves with eight arms and a squishy silicon cover that flaps with the rhythm of the waves.

Just like jellyfish in the wild, Cyro is designed to float with the waves, rather than waste energy fighting them, which is probably part of the reason why the military and research team decided to mimic it. One day, they hope the jellyfish will be able to swim around the ocean for months gathering intelligence, measuring atmospheric conditions, cleaning up oil spills, entertaining tourists or whatever it is the Navy actually plans to do with them. 

Let's get real, though. These are underwater drones. The Army, Air Force and CIA have flying drones. The Navy, appropriately, gets aquatic drones. The scare-mongering language characteristic of all things drone-related is already starting to appear in the press.

When the latest peek at the jellyfish program appeared on the web a few days ago, Fox News went with the dun-dun-dun lede: "A man-sized robot jellyfish is patrolling U.S. coasts." This isn't even true. If you manage to make it to the end of the Fox story — and apparently Allison Barrie, the story's author, got lost on the way — you'll learn that "it will be several years before they could be deployed."

The Navy's stayed vague about what exactly these aqua-drones will do, but past research and common sense suggests it could be something violent. After all, the program falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Naval Undersea Warfare Center and immediately conjures up memories of the Navy's fabled however failed killer dolphin project from a few years ago.

Way back in the 70s, a Navy dolphin trainer revealed that they'd tried arming the underwater mammals with "large hypodermic syringes loaded with pressurized carbon dioxide" that would force victims to the surface or, as some suggested, might actually make them explode.

It's not out of the question that the burgeoning new blob-bot program will experiment with similarly aggressive methods. In the near term, it's more likely that they'll be used for surveillance. The military is clearly interested in the possibilities of building an army of drones capable of perpetual motion that can keep an eye on America, her borders and bases all day every day. They're also working on the flying version of a drone that never needs a rest. Why wouldn't they want an eye in the sky and an camera riding the oceans' currents?