The earliest attempts at flying machines looked to birds and insects for inspiration. Some of those devices worked; many didn't. Maybe inventors should have turned their eyes to the sea instead. That's what a team from New York University just did. Inspired by the way that jellyfish float through the ocean, the research team invented a tiny robot that flies by flapping its transparent wings 20 times per second. The innovation, though in its early phases, creates a remarkably stable flight pattern which could be of future use for surveillance robots, search-and-rescue devices or atmospheric monitoring.

The device was presented to the public on Nov. 24 at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics in Pittsburgh.

The prototype device is inordinately small (it only weighs two grams) because it does not yet carry its own power supply or steering mechanisms. But it does contain four flapping wings – arranged kind of like the petals of a flower – that flap up and down like a cross between a jellyfish and a moth. The robot can rise, fly in a given direction and – perhaps most importantly – hover.

Flapping aircraft – as opposed to helicopters with rotating blades – are known as ornithopters. The abstract for the presentation says this type of device offers "maneuverability at small scales" and that the team's research results "show the promise of flapping-flight strategies beyond those that directly mimic the wing motions of flying animals." Flying animals, such as fruit flies, use too much energy constantly monitoring and adjusting their flying motion, so this alternative theoretically offers a different method of making much simpler flying robots.

Co-inventor Leif Ristroph, an assistant professor of mathematics at NYU's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, told NBC News that a device like this could have a great environmental role, saying you could build dozens of devices and set them hovering above New York City to monitor pollution or CO2.

The NYU device is only eight centimeters (3.14 inches) across. A press release about the research from the American Physical Society says other researchers have had a longstanding goal of creating robots just a centimeter in size, which would allow them to be either undetected or slip into very small spaces.

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Extremely tiny robot floats through the air — like a jellyfish
The transparent flying machine flaps its wings 20 times per second.