“This research also relates to the ‘Impossible Engine’ study,” said Rocklin. “Its creator claimed that it could move forward without any propellant. That engine was indeed impossible, but because spacetime is very slightly curved, a device could actually move forward without any external forces or emitting a propellant – a novel discovery.”
The researchers speculate that such robots could also one day help us travel around black holes by recreating the same environment the celestial objects exist in. Now that would be a cool development!
The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Locomotion by shape changes or gas expulsion is assumed to require environmental interaction, due to conservation of momentum. However, as first noted in [J. Wisdom, Science 299, 1865-1869 (2003)] and later in [E. Guéron, Sci. Am. 301, 38-45 (2009)] and [J. Avron, O. Kenneth, New J. Phys, 8, 68 (2006)], the noncommutativity of translations permits translation without momentum exchange in either gravitationally curved spacetime or the curved surfaces encountered by locomotors in real-world environments. To realize this idea which remained unvalidated in experiments for almost 20 y, we show that a precision robophysical apparatus consisting of motors driven on curved tracks (and thereby confined to a spherical surface without a solid substrate) can self-propel without environmental momentum exchange. It produces shape changes comparable to the environment’s inverse curvatures and generates movement of 10−1 cm per gait. While this simple geometric effect predominates over short time, eventually the dissipative (frictional) and conservative forces, ubiquitous in real systems, couple to it to generate an emergent dynamics in which the swimming motion produces a force that is counter-balanced against residual gravitational forces. In this way, the robot both swims forward without momentum and becomes fixed in place with a finite momentum that can be released by ceasing the swimming motion. We envision that our work will be of use in a broad variety of contexts, such as active matter in curved space and robots navigating real-world environments with curved surfaces.