NPR Larvae Robots


Minion-Like ‘Larva Bots’ Roam the Seas, Uncovering Secrets


Grant Susner leans over the edge of a boat in Bodega Bay, stretches his arm toward the waves and releases “Bipinnaria” into the wild.  Bipinnaria — bright yellow against the deep blue surface — begins floating away from the boat, bobbing from side to side in the choppy water. Susner is principle marine electronics technician at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory and his natural habitat is the marine lab’s main research vessel, the Mussel Point. Soon Bipinnaria is joined by its comrades: Hippolyte, Velella, Veliger and Zoea. They drift away swaying in synchrony, like soldiers who’ve decided to waddle instead of march.  These small robots are serving the cause of marine ecology. Their names give clue to their mission — that is, if you majored in marine biology. Each moniker is the name of the free-swimming larval stage of a marine animal. After hatching from eggs, certain sea stars spend their early days as bipinnaria. Some shrimp have a Hippolyte phase (named for an Amazonian queen). Velella are jellyfish. Veliger, clams and sea snails. Zoea are crab.  The job of these robots is to behave as much as possible like marine larvae themselves, albeit ones that can transmit their location, send email and take cues from curious researchers.