Lightweight robo-coat for sea creatures could track habits without interfering

Tracking sea animals is a difficult task for many reasons, not least of which is the robustness necessary for any device to survive longer than a few weeks of water torture. The clunky solutions currently used to watch whales and other creatures might soon have a more lightweight competitor: this flexible, inexpensive “marine skin.”

Developed by researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, the ultra-light sensor platform was developed out of the simple concern that existing tech simply isn’t pleasant for animals to wear. Muhammad Mustafa Hussain leads the project in collaboration with the Red Sea Research Institute.

The marine skin uses a flexible silicone substrate and a design that can survive being twisted, torqued and put under serious pressure at up to moderate depth. It tracks the salinity and temperature of the water and distance below the surface; this could be used to track either the creature’s own preferences or to monitor the waters in which it swims or crawls.

It uses a watch battery and the team suggests it could last for up to a year once it’s optimized, although the necessity of transmitting information over long distances could limit that. Currently it can only send information via Bluetooth, and a 30-foot range isn’t particularly useful in the vast ocean. But there are ways to account for that.

At a cost of less than $12 per unit, it’s also extremely cheap. At scale that could be even cheaper, and its low profile means it could be deployed en masse on small animals rather than on carefully chosen high-value targets like itinerant whales.

It’s still in the prototype phase, but the team is working with others to test the devices, and publishing its progress in a paper in Flexible Electronics. IEEE Spectrum has a few more details and pictures from Hussain’s group.

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