Miniature Flying Robot Flaps Wings Like A Jellyfish, Making Flight Less Turbulent

By Ben Wolford on November 25, 2013 5:41 PM EST

Robot Jellyfish
A new flying robot mimics the way jellyfish swim. (Photo: Leif Ristroph/New York Univers)

There are only a few ways to hover in flight. Helicopters are one way. But for tiny flying robots, many of them utilize the same flying principles as fruit flies: flapping. Vehicles that flap to fly are called ornithopters (here's one of the first ones).

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But miniature ornithopters have always suffered from the same challenges that fruit flies encounter: changes in air pressure and wind direction make flight unstable. Now physicists at New York University have discovered a better model than fruit flies for taking the turbulence out of nanoflight. One that doesn't even fly.

"Our [robot] is an aerial jellyfish if you will," said Leif Ristroph in an interview with NBC News. Ristroph, along with Stephen Childress, have invented one of the most simple flying machines ever made. It weighs practically nothing, and its entire mass consists of its wire frame and four plastic wings. All the power it uses is carried in on a wire tether, which means it's not that practical — yet. But the scientists say it proves this kind of flapping flight is possible.

"These results show the promise of flapping-flight strategies beyond those that directly mimic the wing motions of flying animals," they wrote in their abstract, presented to the American Physical Society. Ristroph and Childress are among the scores of physicists descending on Pittsburgh this week for the society's 66th annual Division of Fluid Dynamics conference. We've already reported on some of the other submissions, including the secrets of noiseless owl flight and the guys who've investigated ways to avoid urinal and toilet "splashback." (The gentlemen know what they're talking about.)

The interesting thing about the Fluid Dynamics conference is that the papers include research into both gaseous and liquid media. Ristroph tells NBC that's a salient point when it comes to his jellyfish-looking aircraft. The principles of flight and swimming are much the same, except that flight is harder. "No one's ever built this, and as far as we know nature never built it either to fly in air," he said. "Maybe that indicates that it's a bad idea? In any case we got it to work, so maybe not that bad."

The main difference between this tiny aircraft and the other ornithopter-type crafts is that this one doesn't have to pay attention to gusts of wind and respond to them to stay stable. The same downward thrust that gives it lift also adjusts to environmental changes without thinking. It can even bump into things without much disruption. "Making a dumb machine is a nice strategy for very small robots," Ristroph tells NewScientist. "Without circuits and sensors, it's also lighter."

According to Phys.org, the device weighs less than two grams and is eight centimeters wide. The author notes that although it looks kind of like the flutter of a jellyfish, because the wings are arranged in an array around the center, its flight pattern looks more like a moth's. Ristroph told NewScientist the technology wasn't actually inspired by jellyfish but that his robot could theoretically work underwater, too. Eventually it could be used for things like monitoring air quality high in the atmosphere. 

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