How to move a boat without an engine, paddles or sails

Researchers say technology they have developed would let boats or small aquatic robots glide through the water without the need for an engine, sails or paddles.

A University of Pittsburgh research team has designed a propulsion system that uses the natural surface tension that is present on the water's surface and an electric pulse to move the boat or robot, researchers said. The Pitt system has no moving parts and the low-energy electrode that emits the pulse could be powered by batteries, radio waves, or solar power, researchers said in a statement.

The system bio-mimics the propelling skill of some insects that float on the water and move by leaning one way or the other. For example, researchers said they were inspired by the way beetle larvae move on water.  Like any floating object, larva resting in the water causes the surface tension to pull equally on both sides. To move forward, the larva bends its back downward to change the tension direction behind it. The forward tension then pulls the larva through the water, said Sung Kwon Cho, senior researcher and a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science in Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering.

One of the system's primary applications could be as a  cheap, environment-friendly robot that could traverse the world's oceans, gathering research data, Cho said.

Pitt researchers said that in their experiments, an electrode attached to a 2-centimeter-long "mini-boat" emitted a surge that changed the rear surface tension direction and propelled the boat at roughly 4 millimeters per second. A second electrode attached to the boat's front side served as the rudder.

The Pitt system is similar to the MIT developed robot known as a Robostrider.

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