Future Tense

Jellyfish vs. Robots: Battle for Planet Earth

Jellyfish: pretty to look at, tough to get out of your power plant’s cooling system

Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice—but if I had to bet my life savings, my money would be on jellyfish. (I kid—I have no money.) From the swarm that attacked a nuclear reactor in Sweden last weekend to those that wrecked fisheries in the Black Sea, great, blobby armies of jellyfish are on the march. In fact, things have gotten so bad, scientists have developed a platoon of autonomous robots to fight on our behalf.

So, how does one wage war against an armada that knows neither fear nor defeat? How do you stare down beasts that can grow up to 150 feet long or weigh half a ton? Well, you hit them where it hurts—their soft, snotty bodies.

Introducing the JEROS, an autonomous robot system designed by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology to suck jellies up and spit them back out—as piles of goo. JEROS floats along the surface of the ocean, using a combination of GIS (geographic information system), GPS, and INS (inertial navigation system) to execute search-and-destroy missions. It navigates from one inundated patch of sea to another, and once it finds a target, JEROS’s “grinding part” turns the jellyfish into sea mulch.

Obviously, the threat posed by any single jellyfish is dwarfed by what they can do as a mob. As I mentioned earlier, jellies are a bane to all industries that suck up massive amounts of seawater. A single power plant in Japan has to remove up to 150 tons of jellyfish from its cooling system every day. And this goes for reactors on big ships too, like the time thousands of jellyfish immobilized the USS Ronald Reagan while it docked in an Australian port. In her book, Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, Lisa-ann Gershwin writes about how these swarms can cover enormous territories, like the “stingy-slimy killing field” that dominates 30,000 square miles of ocean off the coast of southern Africa.

But the creators of JEROS know how to fight fire with fire. JEROS stands for Jellyfish Elimination Robotic Swarm, and like any good swarm, the robots are meant to work in teams. All researchers need to do is give a lead robot coordinates, and the platoon will follow in formation, blending all the way. Just three robots can chum up about 2,000 pounds of jellyfish in an hour.

But before you declare victory for mankind, there are some things you ought to know. The swarms of jellyfish suffocating ecosystems the world over are, in part, our fault. Humans are causing climate change, and climate change means longer and more intense algal blooms—which jellyfish positively thrive in. And our long-line fishing operations are decimating sea turtle populations that would otherwise feast on jellyfish. 

Not to mention the fact that some species of jellyfish don’t really mind a good shredding. Going back to Gershwin’s book, we know that when jellies of the genus Mnemiopsis are quartered, the little monsters regenerate as full-bodied adults within 2-3 days. Even more freaky, when the “Benjamin Button jellyfish” dies, some of its cells break off of the dead body and come together to form a polyp, which goes on to spawn new jellyfish.

Basically, the war of man and robot against jellyfish has only just begun. Let’s just hope the robots never switch sides.