‘Flying fish’ robot can propel itself 26 metres off the surface

A nature-inspired robot using water and combustible powder can launch itself from water like a flying fish. 

The device, which can travel 26 metres through the air after take-off, could potentially be used to collect water samples in hazardous environments, such as floods. 

Researchers at Imperial College London created the system, which weighs just 160 grams and can ‘jump’ multiple times after refilling its water tank.

Furthermore, while similar robots often require calm conditions to leap from the water, the team’s invention generates a force 25 times the robot’s weight, giving it a greater chance of overcoming choppy waves. 

The device, which can travel 26 metres through the air after take-off, could potentially be used to collect water samples in hazardous environments, such as floods

The device, which can travel 26 metres through the air after take-off, could potentially be used to collect water samples in hazardous environments, such as floods

HOW DOES IT WORK?

The water and the calcium-carbide powder combine in a reaction chamber, producing a burnable acetylene gas. 

As the gas ignites and expands, it pushes the water out as a jet, which propels the robot clear of the water and into a glide of up to 26 metres.

Impressively, it creates so much force that it can even escape choppy waters. 

This could allow it to float on water and take samples at multiple points without additional power, saving energy over longer distances compared to an electrically powered robot. 

The water and the calcium-carbide powder then combine in a reaction chamber, producing a burnable acetylene gas. 

As the gas ignites and expands, it pushes the water out as a jet, which propels the robot clear of the water and into a glide of up to 26 metres.

The only moving part is a small pump that brings in water from the environment the robot is sat in, such as a lake or ocean. 

It also requires just 0.2 grams of calcium carbide powder in a combustion chamber.  

Lead researcher Dr Mirko Kovac, Director of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory at Imperial, said: ‘Water-to-air transition is a power-intensive process, which is difficult to achieve on a small-scale flying vehicle that needs to be lightweight for flight.

‘We have used water-reactive chemicals to reduce the materials that the robot needs to carry. 

‘Since the chamber fills passively and the environmental water acts as a piston, we can create a full combustion cycle with only one moving part, which is the pump that mixes the water with the fuel.’

The team tested the robot in a lab, in a lake, and in a wave tank, showing that it can escape from the water’s surface even under relatively rough conditions. 

While similar robots often require calm conditions to leap from the water, the team's invention generates a force 25 times the robot's weight, giving it a greater chance of overcoming waves

While similar robots often require calm conditions to leap from the water, the team’s invention generates a force 25 times the robot’s weight, giving it a greater chance of overcoming waves

The water and the calcium-carbide powder then combine in a reaction chamber, producing a burnable acetylene gas. As the gas ignites and expands, it pushes the water out as a jet, which propels the robot clear of the water

The water and the calcium-carbide powder then combine in a reaction chamber, producing a burnable acetylene gas. As the gas ignites and expands, it pushes the water out as a jet, which propels the robot clear of the water

The team are now working with the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) to build new vehicles using advanced materials and begin field trials of the robot in a range of environments, including monitoring the oceans around coral reefs and offshore energy platforms.

Raphael Zufferey, first author on the paper said: ‘These kinds of low-power, tether-free robots could be really useful in environments that are normally time- and resource-intensive to monitor, including after disasters such as floods or nuclear accidents.’

The details of the robot are published today in Science Robotics.   

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