"Our interest ended up being a little bit weird - it was the jellyfish."
American scientists announced today that they have built the world's first jellyfish aircraft.
"We were interested first of all in making a robotic insect that would be an alternative to the helicopter," said Leif Ristroph, who works at New York University's Applied Math Lab.
Inspired by the billowing jellyfish, the prototype drone includes four four-inch pedal-shaped wings that form a downward-facing cone. A tiny motor causes the wings to push outwards and then downwards, 20 times a second, forcing out air through the bottom of the cone.
"If it's knocked over, it stabilises by itself," Ristroph said about the "ornithopter," an aircraft that flies by flapping its wings.
The jellyfish aircraft can also change directions by having one of the wings move faster than the other three.
"In the future, small-scale flapping-wing aircraft may be used in applications ranging from surveillance and reconnaissance missions to traffic and air quality monitoring," said researchers Ristroph and Stephen Childress.
Ristroph added, "There's definitely some military use for things like this, such as in surveillance, but I hope that it has a civilian outlet too. I can imagine a cluster of a hundred of these being thrown out and fanning out across in a city to monitor air pollution."
Ristroph and Childress say that they were inspired by videos from the "early experimental days of flying."
"They were very creative in those days," Ristroph said. "They had lots of very good ideas, but also some bad ones."
In 1485, Leonardo da Vinci began studying the flight of birds and sketched a device in which the aviator lies down on a plank and works two large, membranous wings using hand levers, foot pedals, and a system of pulleys. But the first ornithopters capable of flight were constructed in France in 1858.
Pierre Jullien's model flew an estimated forty feet while Gustave Trouvé's 1870 model flew a distance of 70 metres. Later models in the late 1800s and early 1900s included the use of rubber bands and steam.
Many years later in 2006, French inventor Yves Rousseau succeeded in flying a distance of 64 metres in his human-muscle-powered ornithopter. Unfortunately on his next attempt, a gust of wind broke one of the wings and Rousseau crashed, rendering him a paraplegic.
According to Yahoo News, the next step in the new jellyfish aircraft is to add a battery, a remote control, and an official name.
"We usually call it our flying jellyfish," said Ristroph. "But the name AeroJelly would be cool!"
Image via YouTube