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A fancy flight of fancy

Basic scaling laws, however, suggest that an engine that can generate vibrations powerful enough to lift anything heavier than this is beyond the capability of current technology.

india Updated: Dec 19, 2007 20:34 IST

It’s a bird, it’s a plane — no, it’s a flying carpet! If Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts has his way, it is not impossible for this scene straight out of the Arabian Nights to become reality some day. An alumnus of IIT, Chennai, Mahadevan and his team studied the aerodynamics of a flexible, rippling sheet moving through a fluid, and found it is possible to make it stay aloft in air. The rippling movements create a high-pressure region in the gap between the sheet and the ground, balancing its weight, and lifting and propelling it — not unlike a submarine moves underwater.

Never mind if the sheet resembled more a handkerchief than a carpet, measuring less than 10 cm long and barely 0.1 mm thick. Basic scaling laws, however, suggest that an engine that can generate vibrations powerful enough to lift anything heavier than this is beyond the capability of current technology.

So Aladdin can heave a big sigh of relief: he has no competition, and it will be quite a while before your neighbour rolls out his eight-seater carpet for the family to fly on. But the MIT findings are significant from a technical point of view, the data proving that the laws of physics do not forbid controlled flight of, well, heavy carpets. What next? Flying broomsticks?