Published: 22 January 2021

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a squid!

Dr Rob Siddall, whose work in our Department of Mechanical Engineering Sciences combines animals, robotics and conservation, has an internet hit on his hands… thanks to an animation about flying squid!

Rob created the YouTube video for the popular TED-Ed platform, which sits under the TED Talks umbrella and features short animations on topics of scientific interest. His entry features the story of how squid can launch into the air and glide as a survival tactic – and, with nearly 250,000 views in its first week, it’s become a hit.

But there are solid scientific reasons behind Rob’s cute cartoon foray into the world of this ocean-dwelling tentacular spectacular.

Aiding environmental research

My PhD was in aerial-aquatic locomotion, and these squids are probably the most surprising example of mixing swimming and flying,” says Rob. “I’ve built a couple of different robots which also use a jet of water to take off, although we had to use compressed air or explosions to reach anywhere near the squid’s performance.

“In the long term, I’d like to be able to navigate up and down entire rivers autonomously for a project I’m working on to use riverine robots to monitor the environment.

“One obvious difficulty in the UK is all the locks and weirs we’ve added to our waterways. But a powerful jump-glide could be a solution.”

Tentacles aiding flight

Rob says his research uncovered several other surprising facts about the sea-dwelling cephalopods who can take to the air. 

He continues: “I was quite blown away by reports of pack hunting in Humboldt squid. These predatory creatures hunt cooperatively, signalling to each other by changing the colour of their skin.

“I was also amused to find a reference to flying squid all the way back in the heyday of the Roman Empire, in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.

“I’m very interested in the way squid can use their tentacles as wings, too. A tongue is the closest thing humans have to a tentacle – imagine using that to fly!”

Stranger than fiction

Rob’s quick to credit the Ted-Ed team and, in particular, animator Matt Reynolds, who brought the research to life. Rob is just glad people don’t take the video for a hoax.

“People do sometimes look at you in a slightly bemused manner when you tell them that squid fly!” he reveals. “But the robotics community are increasingly trying to build soft robots, using materials that flex and deform rather than the hard, rigid structures we’re used to seeing in engineering.

“Squid and other cephalopods are a fascinating example of what you can achieve without needing bones.”

Learn more about studying in our Department of Mechanical Engineering Sciences.