Math Transports Jellyfish From Sea to Sky

By Scott Spangler on January 27th, 2014

Technology rules the present and future of every aspect of aviation. It seems clear that pilots can’t fly today without it, or very well with it. If there’s handwriting on the hangar walls that pilots should be paying attention to it would be drone code, UAV, UAS, and RPA.  But aviators are not alone. The technology geeks should check out “With Math as Inspiration, a New Form of Flyer” in the January 15 New York Times.

Dr. Leif Ristroph, an applied mathematician at New York University’s Courant Institute, created this small flying machine with four 3-inch wings. Electrically powered, it keeps itself right side up without sensors or a righting mechanism. Its stability depends completely on the shape and movement of its wings. And it is not alone. A variety of geometric shapes, a pyramid and section of a cone, float in a stable hover before the four-wing flying jelly fish flaps its way into the video that accompanies the article.

This captivating design is not a helicopter or some insect-derivative drone. Dr. Ristroph and his Courant Institute colleague, Stephen Childress, wanted to create a new form of hovering flyer. Why they wanted to create it is an unspoken question not answered in the article, but ultimately I guess it really isn’t that important. It’s also interesting that their design work that started with mathematics, which bring images of Sheldon’s formula-covered Big Bang whiteboards to mind.

Even more interesting is that the duo didn’t model their hovering jellyfish after the real thing. They made the connection after they turned their formulas and force diagrams into something tangible. Still, it makes sense because water and air are both fluids. I take comfort in the reality that while they solved the engineering side of the stability challenge, mathematically, “we don’t really understand for the active flyers how this works.” Nor do they know if their creation will be something useful, but for me, being captivatingly cool is enough. –Scott Spangler, Editor


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