Tuesday, Jul 29, 2014 12:46 pm est

Courant professors create flying robot

Posted on December 10, 2013 | by Nicole Del Mauro

Hannah Luu/WSN


Most flying robot models currently base their design on insect-like wing motions, like those of bees, hummingbirds and moths. Instead of flapping up and down, insects sweep their wings forward, flip them over and bring them back the other way.

Leif Ristroph, assistant professor of Mathematics at NYU’s Courant Institute, has designed and created a jellyfish-like robot with flying capabilities, along with Steve Childress, retired NYU Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, and the assistance of other professors in the Department of Mathematics.

The robot, which Ristroph began building after receiving a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Science Foundation, consists of four Mylar plastic wings and is framed by carbon fiber rods. A tiny direct current electric motor spins a crankshaft around, pulls the wings in and out to make the robot fly. A part of the motor is the gearbox, which slows down power to flap wings 20 times per second, a frequency suitable for flight.

Ristroph started the project about two years ago in the Courant Institute’s Applied Mathematics lab. He and Childress iterated many varying ideas and tested them in a trial and error process. Jun Zhang, professor of physics and math, and Mike Shelley, professor of math and neuroscience, contributed their ideas to assist the process. Zhang and Shelley are co-directors of the lab and Childress is a co-founder.

Ristroph’s flying robot is the first to differ from insect-like models, instead using a closing and opening motion to move itself.

Flight stability is a main advantage of the jellyfish design. From studying their product, Ristroph discovered if their model is knocked over while in flight, perhaps from a gust of wind, it tends to come back upright.


Hannah Luu/WSN


“[Our model] is a much simpler way to fly, where keeping upright is automatically taken care of by the aerodynamics and doesn’t need any sensors or any neural circuits or anything like that,” Ristroph said.

Zhang explained how the robot’s method of flying differs from current flight technology.

“Swimming and flying is a natural phenomenon, and we always find them fascinating. But real-world fliers like an airplane or a ship that involve a steady state approach, they don’t have many moving parts,” Zhang said. “[The model] is important in sense because we better understand nature.”

The robot’s flight was filmed using two high-speed cameras to capture all of its wing motions The team can reconstruct the robot’s 3-D flight path based on the two camera views of its flight.

In the future, miniature fliers could be used for search and rescue, air quality monitoring or surveillance.

Ristroph and Childress continue to analyze the experiment even though they built a functioning flying model.

“Where we’d like to go next is actually understanding how it works. We don’t really understand the aerodynamics of it,” Ristroph said. “We got it to work, we don’t really know why in terms of the physics, so we’re still after that.”

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Dec. 10 print edition. Nicole Del Mauro is a staff writer. Email her at features@nyunews.com.


profile portrait
Felipe De La Hoz

Multimedia Editor | Felipe De La Hoz is a Colombian national studying journalism at the College of Arts and Sciences. Having been born in Colombia and raised in the United States, Mexico and Brazil, Felipe is a trilingual travel aficionado and enjoys working in varied and difficult environments. Apart from his photography, Felipe enjoys investigative reporting and interviews, interviewing the likes of Colombian ex-M-19 guerrilla fighters and controversial politician Jimmy McMillan. He has covered everything from governmental conferences to full-blown riots, as well as portraiture shoots and dining photography. Having worked under Brazilian photojournalists for Reuters and AFP, Felipe hopes to one day work on demanding journalistic projects and contribute to the global news cycle.

Ann Schmidt

News Editor | Ann is a liberal studies sophomore who lived in Florence during her freshman year. She plans on double-majoring in journalism and political science and is always busy. She is constantly making lists and she loves to laugh.


Daniel Yeom

Daniel started at the Features desk of WSN last Spring, writing restaurant reviews whilst indulging on free food and consequently getting fat. Last Fall, he was the dining editor, and he this semester he is senior editor. Daniel is in Gallatin (living the dream) studying Food & Travel Narratives, incorporating aspects of Food Studies, Journalism, and Media, Culture, and Communication. He loves food more than life itself.

Hannah Luu

Deputy Multimedia Editor | Hannah Luu is a ridiculously great Deputy Multimedia Editor. She is a sophomore from Northern California. If you think Northern California means San Francisco you might need to closely examine a map. She is passionate about NPR and being half Asian.

  • How to join:

    The Washington Square News holds open weekly budget meetings at its office located at 838 Broadway every Sunday. All are welcome to attend, no matter your background in journalism, writing, or reporting. Specific times for meetings by desk are listed below. If you wish to talk to an editor before you attend, feel free to check out the Staff page.

    5 P.M. 6 P.M. 6 P.M. 6:30 P.M. 6:30 P.M. 7 P.M.

    Applying for an editor position: Applications for editor positions during the fall or spring semesters are available twice each academic year and can be found here when posted. Applications for the Fall 2012 semester are closed, but check back for Spring 2013. Those who wish to apply are urged to publish pieces in the newspaper and contact current editors for shadowing.

    History of the Washington Square News:

    The Washington Square News is the official daily student newspaper of New York University and serves the NYU, Greenwich Village, and East Village communities. Founded as an independent newspaper in 1973, the WSN allows its undergraduate writers and photographers to cover campus and city news and continues to grow its strong body of award-winning journalists and photographers.

  • The WSN has a circulation of about 60,000 and can be found in over a hundred purple bins distributed throughout campus. It is published Monday through Thursday during the fall and spring semesters and online on Friday, with additional special issues published in the summer. The newspaper recently revamped its website during the Fall 2012 semester.

    Like few campus newspapers in the country, the paper is editorially and financially independent from the university and is solely responsible for selling advertisements to fund its production. The WSN, including its senior staff, is run solely by current undergraduate students and the business-division is largely student-operated as well.

    A Board of Directors comprised of alumni, NYU professors and working news media professionals serves as advisors to the paper. Board members have no control in the WSN's editorial policy or newsroom operations. Alumni of the newspaper are established and leading journalists in such news organizations as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NBC news, ABC news, Fox News, and USA Today.