Huh? Using a flying magic carpet to explore Mars [video]

The Aladdin-inspired hovering aircraft uses ripple power to generate propulsion.

It looks more like a thin sheet of plastic and you can't take mythical princesses for rides on it just yet. But even flying magic carpets start out as humble prototypes.

The flying or hovering part (to be more precise) is achieved by running electrical current through the device to create ripples of air underneath, which in turn drives propulsion. Currently, the device moves at a speed of less than an inch per second. The researchers are hoping with some design tweaks, they can bring that up to a yard per second.

The idea was originally conceived by Noah Jafferis, a graduate student at Princeton University, who's early attempts at building a prototype didn't yield much beyond something that moved erratically at high frequencies because there was no way to predict how it would flex. He and lead researcher professor James Sturm then hit on the idea of embedding sensors to create a kind of feedback loop, enabling them to determine the right electrical currents to get the propulsion to work properly. After two years spent retrofitting the material, the wafting motions eventually became in sync with what they had in mind.

"It has to keep close to the ground," Mr Jafferis explained to the BBC's Science in Action, "because the air is then trapped between the sheet and the ground. As the waves move along the sheet it basically pumps the air out the back." That is the source of the thrust.

So why not just build a hovercraft? Jafferis argues that the advantage of using a Disney-style approach is that there are no moving parts. Compared to a rover, it might be better equipped to traverse a really dusty terrain like Mars without getting gunked up or worn down.

The next challenge would be to scale up the technology. For instance, the magic carpet is powered by batteries , which keep it anchored. But the researchers have devised a way to set it free by incorporating solar powered technology . However, a full sized version capable of transporting a passenger is another story. That would require an aircraft with a wingspan of 50 meters.

Not exactly something you can take out for a quick spin, though it would probably still impress the ladies.

(via BBC)

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