16 Sep
  • Scientists have created a flying fish-like robot that jumps into the air from water.
  • The first of its kind, the vehicle is powered by a chemical reaction between water and calcium carbide.
  • The researchers hope the small glider could be used by marine biologists to collect water samples in hard-to-reach regions.

Roboticists at Imperial College London and the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology have developed a new type of glider that swiftly jumps from sea to air like a flying fish. The small aerial-aquatic glider, which can fit in the palm of your hands, uses a chemical reaction to propel itself out of the water.

Water is pumped into a master chamber, and then siphoned into another, smaller chamber containing calcium carbide powder. This chemical reaction creates acetylene gas, which is forced into the main chamber and ignited. The force of this ignition quickly expels water in the chamber, sending the vehicle into the air. 

image(R. ZUFFEREY ET. AL, 2019)

Similar robots—like the robotic bee that the team of scientists previously worked on—have used either tethered systems of power or are propelled by internal engines or compressed gas. This newest vehicle, however, has a very simple design with only one moving part: the pump.

“It doesn't need any pistons or valves, which are typical for combustion processes or internal combustion engines,” lead roboticist Mirko Kovac tells Popular Mechanics. “It uses the property of the fluid, the gas, the water, and this reaction to create the various stages of the combustion.”

Each combustion-powered jump requires 0.2 grams of calcium carbide, and a small amount of water. In its current iteration, the glider contains enough calcium carbide for more than 20 jumps and can glide for almost 26 meters, Kovac says.

“It doesn’t need to carry a lot,” Kovac says. “This size is good because it’s very portable, it’s disposable and it’s inexpensive.” Still, he and his team are interested in scaling the vehicle up in both size and distribution.

The team hopes the glider could be used by the scientific community to take salinity, pH, and other measurements and collect water samples in vulnerable marine environments, such as along a coral reef.

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