Switzerland's "Airship": (possibly) soon floating at an arena near you  (Source: New Scientist)

The Airfish's flight is driven by polymer "muscles" in the tail and midsection.  (Source: New Scientist)

Research Christ Jordi checks out the massive airfish.  (Source: New Scientist)
Bizarre fish-blimp could soon be floating over sporting events

You know you've had one to many beers when you're at your favorite sports arena and witness bulbous transparent fish swimming through the air overhead.  Except, your eyes might not be deceiving you; you might merely be witnessing a bizarre new cutting edge technology.

Scientists at the EMPA in Dübendorf, Switzerland, the Swiss federal laboratories for materials testing and research, have combined polymer muscles and an 8-meter helium-filled blimp to form the Airfish.

Christa Jordi describes, "We needed to mimic a fish that's a versatile swimmer, not one that's a specialist in fast acceleration or high maneuverability.  So we chose the rainbow trout because it is a bit of a generalist."

Jordi's team uses an acrylic polymer with carbon electrodes to create the fish's "muscle."  When a strong voltage is applied to the electrodes an electrical field is generated creating compression of the polymer.  "Muscles" in the main body and tail yield a fluid swishing motion.  Power is provided by lithium ion batteries in the gondola (underbody).

The resulting movement slowly propels the Airfish along at a rate of half a meter per second.  Jordi comments, "That's a slow walking speed.  And it's interesting because you might think that all its speed comes from the undulating body – but we showed that's not the case by running the body and tail alone and then together."

The current generation muscles wear out after a couple of months.  The researchers are considering a next-gen design of silicone with silver electrodes as a hardier replacement.  The researchers believe that an improved version of the Airfish might be ideal for sporting or music events due to the fact that its cleaner and doesn't make much noise.

Industry veterans aren't convinced, though.  Dan Speers, president of Mobile Airships in Brantford, Ontario -- a Canadian supplier of blimps used to carry adverts or cameras at outdoor music events -- comments, "It is a very elegant-looking airship, with a great aerodynamic shape.  Using a system that does not require gasoline is always a plus, as it cuts down on air and noise pollution. [However, in] an arena or stadium-like setting, there are other confounding factors that need to be addressed – such as wind currents."

There's no word yet about whether the Swiss might be eyeing other uses -- such as military surveillance applications.  The U.S. military and its contractors have been awfully fond of airships lately, with E-Green Technology and Lockheed Martin both pitching designs to the military's top brass.

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