Princeton University graduate student Noah Jafferis has opened up a whole new world of innovation by developing a miniature fully functional flying carpet. The 10cm (4in) sheet of plastic is propelled by “ripple power”, which uses waves of electrical current to drive thin pockets of air from the front to the rear of the device, allowing it to fly.

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Featured in Applied Physics Letters, Jafferis’ prototype moves at speeds of about a centimeter per second, however he believes this could be increased to a metre per second. Speaking to the BBC, Prof James Sturm, who leads Mr Jafferis’ research group, said that the project faced serious challenges.

“What was difficult was controlling the precise behaviour of the sheet as it deformed at high frequencies,” he said. “Without the ability to predict the exact way it would flex, we couldn’t feed in the right electrical currents to get the propulsion to work properly.” Over two years, the team attached sensors to every part of the carpet in order to determine the conditions for its optimum performance. Once these conditions were determined, the electric currents allowed the carpet to take flight.

Of course, in the paper the team use the term ‘fly’ loosely. In their words, the carpet has more in common with a hovercraft than an aeroplane. “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 what does the technology mean for the future? For now, Jafferis believes a solar-powered version could fly over large distances, but believes that his design could see a future where aircraft need no components to achieve flight. “The ideal use would be some kind of dusty, grimy environment where moving parts would get gummed up and stop,” he explained.

However the one answer you all want is still not yet achievable – for a flying carpet powerful enough to fly you through the streets of your hometown, it would (currently) need to be 50 metres wide. That is a lot of carpet to roll up and store.

Click here to see the prototype in action.

+ Applied Physics Letters

Via BBC News