When you think of creatures that can fly, what comes to mind? Birds, most likely, or perhaps a few bugs. If you're particularly into prehistoric times, maybe a dinosaur or two. The last thing you'll likely think of is a jellyfish - but researchers at New York University decided that the body shape of the aquatic invertebrate would make for a perfect flying machine.
The tiny, four-winged robot is comprised of a carbon-fibre fame surrounded by two pairs of plastic wings connected to a motor which causes them to open and close. Because of its shape, it can fly upright with virtually no effort, and no AI or sensors are required to keep the machine aloft. As a result, it boasts more stability than other robots of similar size.
With the lack of interior circuitry, the robot weighs in at around two grams - enough, says designer Leif Ristroph, that it can be carried along on a breeze. This reduced weight most definitely doesn't make the robot fragile, however: Ristrop explained that the robot can crash into obscacles yet remain entirely unscathed.
Currently, jellyfish bot can only fly while connected to an external and immobile power source; it doesn't quite generate enough lift yet to carry any sort of internal power supply. Ristroph is hopeful, though, and says that by improving the motor and wings, the robot could be untethered and allowed to fly free.
Alright. So we've got a flying robot whose design is based on a jellyfish. That's awesome (and a little terrifying, come to think of it). What...exactly is the point of Ristroph's invention?
Near as I can tell, Ristroph and his colleagues created the device with research in mind. The robot, he explains, is the ideal shape and size to be outfitted with a sensor, released into the atmosphere, and set to monitor carbon dioxide concentrations (or any number of other factors).
On the invention's unique appearance, Ristroph somewhat surprisingly confessed that the team didn't actually design t with a jellyfish in mind. The design, he explained, simply seemed like an excellent idea, and the best choice they could make at the time. That said, he did continue that it could easily be modified to move underwater. "In the water, you don't have to worry about lift," he noted. "The challenge was to make something fly: compared with swimming it's far more difficult."