Princeton Team Creates Plastic “Flying Carpet”

It is Arabian Nights recreated, but not quite. A team of researchers at Princeton has come up with a plastic, which remains suspended when a current of particular frequency is passed through it. Piezoelectric actuators and sensors respond to the electrical signals and send ripples across the entire surface of the thin sheet, displacing air pockets right beneath it. This allows the sheet to float. Synchronized vibrations can push these air pockets from the front to the back of the sheet, allowing propulsion.

The Flying Carpet Contraption

The “Flying” Carpet

The Flying Carpet’ has been designed by a graduate student at Princeton Mr. Noah Jafferis. He says that he was inspired by a mathematical paper he read, which was written by Harvard professor Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan.

The propulsion is also inspired by the way stingrays move in the water. They create ripples through their flattened bodies in a manner so as to displace water in a particular direction. The reaction force propels the rays in the opposite direction.

More Work to be Done!

There are problems though. The plastic sheet bends too much at high frequencies. Nevertheless Jafferis has already assigned himself a new project. To build such a thing powered by solar cells. This current model uses heavy batteries, which are kept on the table and connected to the sheet by wires. Thus, the plastic can hardly move more than a few centimeters. Further, the speed is pretty slow at 1 cm/s. Jafferis wants to go to upto as high as 1 m/s.

In the paper that they published Applied Physics Letters, Jafferis and team consciously put flying’ within double-quotes, indicating that it is not really a flying object, just a hovering one.

As for applications, there may be many. Right now, people are just concentrating on building this fascinating thing. It’s still a long way from the fast flying magical carpets we’re so used to seeing in the cartoons.

Published by

Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.

  • NTJ

    Just to clarify, the current work is about demonstrating a propulsive force
    produced by traveling waves in a thin plastic sheet, not lift as of yet. To
    achieve lift, the sheet has to be untethered to allow it reach faster speeds
    (while still being only a few mm above the ground).
    We performed such measurements in two setups – one with the sheet suspended
    using an air table, and the other with the sheet hanging from elastic threads.
    The propulsion only works when the sheet is suspended ~1-2mm above the ground, as expected from theory.

    The BBC also did not include the description of the videos, that I had given them:

    The first video is demonstrating the propulsion caused by the traveling wave.
    The sheet is supported on a cushion of air from the air table, ~1mm above it,
    and is connected to conductive threads to supply power. When the sheet is off,
    its equilibrium position is near the center of the air
    table, and it does not move significantly. When the sheet is on, in this case
    with a traveling wave propagating to the left, it is propelled in the opposite
    direction (to the right in this case). The video shows the sheet turning on and
    off in several cycles, and it thus moves back and forth. Because the frequency
    of vibration is 100Hz, the actual wave shape can not be seen; rather the sheet
    seems to “shimmer” when on.

    In the second video, the vibration is only a few Hz, to allow viewing of the
    actual traveling wave vibration. But frequencies this low are not sufficient to
    propel the sheet. In addition, the sheet is suspended from elastic threads in
    this case (~1cm above the ground, so no propulsion would be observed even at
    higher frequencies).

    Several other errors in the bbc article:

    It is not really like a hovercraft, which pushes air down to create lift – our device pushes air backwards to propel itself forward.

    The sentences “He abandoned what would have been a fashionable project printing electronic circuits with nano-inks for one that seemed to have more in common with 1001 Nights than 21st-Century engineering. Prof James Sturm, who leads Mr Jafferis’ research group, conceded that at times the project seemed foolhardy.” were completely made up by the BBC.

    The sheet would actually only need to be 50 feet on each side to carry the weight of a person, not 50 meters.

  • Wow. What a suprise !!