Bionic Jellyfish Have the Potential to Transform Ocean Exploration

These newly developed aquatic cyborgs could change the way humans gather information from the ocean

95% of our oceans have never been explored (1). What if the key to uncovering the secrets of Earth’s most mysterious place was jellyfish? In 2013, John Dabiri, a Nigerian-American engineer and Centennial Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering at California Institute of Technology, began his project of improving ocean exploration using mechanized jellyfish. For the last eleven years, Dabiri and his colleagues have worked to change the future of oceanic study, using an unconventional resource: cyborg jellyfish (2). 

Jellyfish are one of the world’s most efficient swimmers. When jellies pulse their bodies to move, an action that looks as if their top, or bell, is collapsing and blowing up again, they change the water pressure of their surroundings, increasing their forward motion. This mechanism allows them to move quickly through the water without expending a large amount of energy (3). Additionally, hundreds of jellyfish species are already found throughout all of Earth’s oceans (4). They can survive a large range of temperatures and very high-pressure depths (2). These qualities made jellyfish the prime candidates for Dabiri and former Stanford graduate student Nicole Xu’s ocean exploration project. 

Dabiri and Xu began working together in 2013 and published the results of their collaboration in Science Advances in 2020 (2). For seven years, the two developed a project to improve a moon jellyfish’s ability to swim. Dabiri and Xu found that while jellyfish typically swim at a rate of two centimeters per second, they are capable of moving much faster. However, because speed is not necessary for jellyfish to capture their prey, they typically avoid doing so.

Dabiri and Xu set out to find a method of harnessing the jellies’ potential as information gatherers and developed a device that could control the pace of a jellyfish’s swimming. The device, which has been likened to a pacemaker, is around two centimeters in diameter and can be attached to the body of a jellyfish by a small wooden barb in their bell (2). The prosthesis applied to the jellies ran two electrodes from the device to the sides of the jelly’s belly, stimulating the jellyfish’s muscles with a consistent electric pulse (3). An electrode is a conductor that connects the flow of electrons to a non-metallic object (5). Sending electric jolts through the jellyfish’s bell, the device forces the jelly to pulse at a frequency three times faster than it naturally does. Dabiri and Xu discovered that the increase in pulses led to a growth of the distance covered per second from two cm to four to six cm, twice or thrice as long. Beyond that, the jolts caused the jellyfish to move more efficiently while swimming, meaning that even if the jellyfish was swimming three times faster than usual, they would only use twice as much energy (2).

Illustration of the Bionic Jellyfish by Rebecca Konte

As of 2024, Dabiri and another graduate student named Simon Anuszczyk made further advancements in the project. To make the jellyfish’s body more streamlined, a forebody, which resembles a cone, was added to the design. This addition is aimed to reduce drag and improve swimming performance while maintaining the jellyfish’s buoyancy and movement in a vertical direction. In the ocean, it takes a few days for a jellyfish to travel thousands of meters down from the surface, and then back up. To put their bionic jellyfish’s abilities to the test, Dabiri had a three-story tall aquarium built inside Caltech’s Guggenheim lab which helped simulate this process. Through the tests they conducted, Dabiri and Anuszczyk found that a jellyfish equipped with their forebody and pacemaker can swim up to 4.5 times faster than a bare jellyfish, even while carrying data-collecting sensors on its body (6). 

Despite the advancements Dabiri and his colleagues made, questions have been posed about the ethical implications of these modifications, particularly about animal cruelty. While jellyfish do not have a brain, or pain receptors, they do secrete mucus when stressed (2). Throughout all of the swim tests, none of the recorded jellyfish released any mucus (2). Additionally, Dabiri found that the jellyfish were still able to swim normally after the devices were removed, meaning that the jellyfish would not suffer long-term consequences from the devices (3).

Photo of the three story testing tank at CalTech

Dabiri, Xu, and Anuszczyk created these bionic jellyfish with one goal in mind: to better understand the ocean. For many years, the only way to accomplish this has been to use a limited number of expensive submarines and swimming drones (3). Dabiri and his colleagues wanted to change this by making a more affordable and self-sustaining tool. Once equipped with sensors, the jellyfish would act as data gatherers, collecting information about the temperature, salinity level, and oxygen level of all the oceans. The total cost of one of the bionic jellyfish would be around $20, far less than the $50,000 or more per day that submarines can cost to rent (6). The jellyfish would also be able to fuel themselves by capturing prey, making them much more energy efficient (2). 

These jellyfish could revolutionize the field of ocean exploration. Their capacity as data gatherers would provide crucial information for understanding how Earth’s climate is changing, which is one of the most pressing issues in the modern world (6). Though a few more advancements must be made before these cyborg jellyfish are ready to be deployed, these tiny animals have the potential to be the key to uncovering the mysteries of Earth’s oceans. 


  1. Most of our ocean is unexplored. Retrieved from,of%20our%20ocean%20is%20unknown.&text=Help%20protect%20our%20ocean%20by%20sharing%20what%20you%27ve%20learned
  2. Perkins, R. (2020, January 29). Bionic Jellyfish Swim Faster and More Efficiently. Retrieved from
  3. Bushwick, S. (2020, January 29). Cyborg Jellyfish Could One Day Explore The Ocean. Springer Nature, Nature Portfolio. Retrieved from
  4. Jellyfish and Other Zooplankton. Retrieved from,as%20corals%20and%20sea%20anemones
  5. Electrode. Retrieved from
  6. Velasco, E. (2024, February 28). Building Bionic Jellyfish for Ocean Exploration. Retrieved from