South Korean civil and environmental engineers are fine-tuning a robotic swarm that has one purpose: destroy jellyfish. The shredding mechanism might strike some as extreme, but jellyfish are a deadly threat to humans.
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The system is called the Jellyfish Elimination Robotic Swarm or JEROS for short and was developed at the South Korean research university KAIST. Associate robotics professor Myung Hyun began working on an unmanned jellyfish removal system three years ago, motivated by jellyfish attacks along the country's southwest coast. Jellyfish have also caused enormous losses in the local fishing industry, where they clog nets, feed on fish eggs and consume the plankton that fish normally eat.
JEROS robots float on the water surface and use both a GPS system and camera to detect jellyfish swarms. The robots then automatically determine the optimal path and formation. Propulsion motors attached to each robot allow them to move around in the water. Submerged nets guide the jellyfish up into the robot, where a special propeller shreds them. Here's a video showing JEROS in action.
The KAIST engineers reported that their first swarm was able to destroy about 900 pounds (400 kilograms) of jellyfish an hour while the newer version can suck up closer to 2,000 pounds in the same amount of time. Usually something like this would make me slightly nauseous - and that video is its own horror movie soundtrack - but given how much havoc jellyfish can wreak, I do understand the need here.
When jellyfish and humans clash, the stories sound like science fiction but they're both real and really awful. The venom from box jellyfish tentacles that can stretch 6.5 feet in length is among the most deadly in the world. Jellyfish regularly mess with power plants by clogging water pipes needed for cooling. Over the weekend they shut down a nuclear reactor in Sweden. The creatures have decimated fisheries as well. In 2007, a mauve stinger jellyfish attack in Ireland suffocated 100,000 salmon in their cages.
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Given all that chaos, judicious and closely monitored checks on jellyfish swarms seems warranted to me. But I don't think they should all be eradicated. Jellyfish do have advantages - and they've even inspired unique robot designs. Meanwhile, the KAIST team plans to continue testing their robots in Masan Bay. They hope that beyond jellyfish, the swarm could be used for other purposes such as sea waste removal. To tackle that, they're going to need bigger propellers.
Photo: The Jellyfish Elimination RObotic Swarm or JEROS shreds jellyfish during a test last August in Masan Bay, South Korea. Credit: KAIST (video)