The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

November 26, 2013

Jellyfish inspire flying-robot design

Jellyfish may not look like the most athletic of swimmers, but they’re remarkably efficient and their body plan could have advantages that translate to the air. A team from New York University has designed a flying jellyfish-like robot that uses four flapping wings to stay aloft.

The unconventional robot, described at the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting in Pittsburgh, could lead the way for flying mini-robots to be used in search-and-rescue and military operations and even as environmental sensors.

Engineers are trying to build all sorts of robots based on the wing motions of such animals as birds, bats, hummingbirds and butterflies. Those working on the smallest robots tend to use more insect-like designs, given that the bugs have already mastered flight mechanisms on a tiny scale.

But the vast majority of flying insects rely on the same mechanism, with the same weaknesses: wings that sweep back and forth in a sort of S-shape. (Only a few creatures, including dragonflies, move their wings in the relatively simple up-down motion that many people expect.)

Such designs are “a great place to start in terms of building a flying machine,” said lead author Leif Ristroph, an applied mathematician at New York University. “But there are some technical problems with it.”

Bugs with flapping wings have to spend a lot of time dealing with a violent environment, sensing every gust of wind and then adjusting accordingly. It takes a lot of work, and it’s inherently unstable. The researchers wanted to build something that can be built small, but simply, and still remain stable in the air without too much thinking.

“I wanted to think of something very different,” Ristroph said. “So I actually tried about five or 10 different schemes, all of which failed except this one.”

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