New Blimp Swims in Air Like Fish

A blimp that swims through the air like a fish has been created by Swiss researchers. The fish-like airship uses artificial muscles made from electroactive polymers (EAPs) to propel itself forward.

Researcher Silvain Michel and his team have patented this unique silent non-rigid airship; it uses its artificial muscles to power through the air like a trout swimming in a brook. It uses the same "bending-rotation-stroke" used by fish in the water—bending its body in one direction and its tail in the other.

According to Dr. Michel:

"This technique can be transferred directly from water to air. A blimp moving through the air is, in terms of the physics involved, exactly the same as a fish moving through water. In both cases a body is moving through a fluid and is subject to the same laws of fluid dynamics (see simulation)."

The fish-like blimp uses electroactive polymers developed by Empa (a Swiss research group). EAPs are elastic polymer films which, when subjected to an electrical voltage, become thinner and expand in area. If properly employed, this deformation can propel the airship forward (see diagram). And, because EAPs convert electrical energy directly into work without the need to use electric motors and gear systems, EAPs provide efficiencies of up to seventy percent.

The electroactive-polymer sheets merge into the airship hull at four points. When activated by electrical energy, they expand, causing the hull to execute the "bending-rotation-stroke" like a fish in water.

Researchers point to a number of possible applications:

  • As relay stations to provide line-of-sight signal transmission
  • Communications platforms
  • Silently observe animals in their natural habitat.
As far as truly science-fictional precursors are concerned, I'm stumped. I think that there is a game for the PS2 that uses a blimp shaped like a fish—Rule of Rose. Also, a fish-blimp was demonstrated in 1988 at RoboFest I in Austin, Texas; it used a mechanical flapping fin for propulsion (Swiss patent lawyers, take note!).

See also these airships with an science-fictional theme:

From NewScientist via Velcro City Tourist Board.

(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission from - where science meets fiction.)