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The BBC reports today that “a miniature magic carpet made of plastic has taken flight in a laboratory at Princeton University.”

The mini magic carpet is a sheet of conductive plastic driven by “ripple power” — waves of electrical current that push thin pockets of air underneath from the front to the rear. It was created by Princeton graduate student Noah Jafferis, in the lab of James Sturm, professor of electrical engineering and director of the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials.

The device actually is more like a hovercraft than an airplane. “It has to keep close to the ground, because the air is then trapped between the sheet and the ground,” Jafferis told the BBC. “As the waves move along the sheet it basically pumps the air out the back.”

Jafferis was inspired by a mathematical paper he read shortly after starting his Ph.D. studies at Princeton, the BBC reports. He had been working on a project with nano-inks with the goal of  printing electronics on flexible plastic sheets when he got the idea to combine electronics and plastic sheets in a revolutionary new way. At first glance, according to the BBC, the idea “seemed to have more in common with 1001 Nights than 21st-Century engineering.”

Sturm said that at times the project seemed “far out,” but that the underlying principles and approaches that Jafferis decided to pursue were always fundamentally solid and realistic.

“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.”

Jafferis recently published research in Applied Physics Letters describing the device, which currently moves at the speed of about a centimeter a second.

 
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