When is a flying carpet not a flying carpet?

When it’s a land-based hovercraft, of course!

Princeton PhD student Noah Jafferis had originally planned to carry out his study project on the technology of printing electronic circuits. However, he changed his mind after reading a 2007 paper on the “Settling and Swimming of Flexible Fluid-Lubricated Foils” that, in the words of its authors, allowed them to ” partly answer the long-standing question in cartoon physics—can carpets fly?”

Jafferis built on the ideas in this paper to build a four-inch wide transparent plastic sheet that moves in the air. It’s powered by electrical current waves pushing air back across the undersurface of the sheet, propelling the sheet at around a centimeter per second.

As the BBC notes, Jafferis’s own paper places “flying” in quotation marks because the device has to be kept low enough to trap air between it and the ground: in reality it’s far closer to a hovercraft than something that’s going to be up in the clouds.

While the concept was simple enough, the real work has been figuring out exactly how the sheet will flex. Extensive measurements from sensors has allowed Jafferis to calculate exactly what currents are needed.

There’s no prospect of this carrying humans as that would require the device to be around 50 meters wide according to Jafferis. However, the lack of moving parts means it could have practical uses in environments where dirt or dust would normally cause problems — including even on the surface of Mars.

For now, though, the next step is to work on replacing the tiny batteries in the device with solar equipment that would not only allow it to move faster, perhaps up to a meter per second, but also run uninterrupted for a far longer time.