Through the Eyes of Underwater Creatures: Wearable, Whole-Body Sensing Networks

Michael Bartlett will design a wearable whole-body sensor network and will receive the Young Researcher Award from the Office of Naval Research.

Horseshoe crabs are often called “living fossils” because their evolution has actually been stagnated for millions of years. However, despite the lack of long-term evolution, crabs have a unique sensory system with a network of multiple “eyes”, some of which are photoreceptors that distinguish between light and dark.

With funding from the Office of Naval Research, Michael Bartlett, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is using a bionic electronic version of the sensory system to develop a series of soft electronic components for human use.

Bartlett won the 2021 Young Researcher Program of the Coastal Geoscience and Optics Program of the Office of Naval Research for his efforts to transform the physiology of underwater organisms into next-generation sensor technology.

Peacock Mantis Shrimp

Because of the various natural sensors used by animals, Bartlett and his team in the Structure and Soft Materials Laboratory are interested in creatures such as horseshoe crabs, octopuses, and mantis shrimps. From the 10 “eyes” distributed in the shell of horseshoe crabs to the hinged compound eyes of mantis shrimp, these creatures have the ability to adjust their behavior based on the myriad information about the environment that is transmitted to the brain.

“These creatures see their world in different ways and can use multiple pieces of information to assess their environment,” Bartlett said. “This kind of situational awareness is amazing, and it makes us think about how to design sensors to increase human consciousness.”

Bartlett’s method applies the idea of ​​complex cognitive systems to integrated electronic networks. Inspired by a system in which horseshoe crabs’ multiple eyes notify their movements, the team will equip portable devices with miniature sensors to handle the movement environment.

The data provided by the sensors will be combined to provide a more reliable image of the object’s environment. The central processing unit of the portable network will use its connected sensors to provide advanced vision, sound and proximity functions to solve potential problems.

Michael Bartlett

To develop this technology, Bartlett will draw on his extensive experience in the field of soft electronics. In a recent project, he developed a polymer composite material containing liquid metal inclusions, and a device that replaced traditional cables and rigid materials with highly flexible materials. These new devices feel like skin, but carry electricity. Since then, the laboratory has used these skin-like electronic devices for soft wireless charging devices and powerful self-healing circuits. For this series of sensors, the team is rebuilding many hard-wired components into soft electronic devices to accommodate the maximum range of motion and comfort.

“With the development of soft electronics, we see the potential to create wearable devices that feel like a second skin and provide users with diverse data,” Bartlett said. “This can improve sensory perception and thus better understand someone’s environment.”

Bartlett believes that the “second skin” nature of the technology can be transformed into a next-generation diving suit, which is made of soft material components that are more like natural fabrics, rather than rigid and heavy equipment, with greater range of motion and faster Motion response.

“Ultimately, our goal is to significantly improve the basic understanding of soft sensing architecture, enabling wearable platforms to mimic underwater creatures and provide users with real-time sensor data to better understand their environment,” Bartlett said . “What if you can feel your surroundings? It’s like having eyes behind your neck.”

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