Human-powered 'flapping-wing' plane first ever to take flight (video)

Human-powered 'flapping-wing' plane first ever to take flight (video)

Summary: Over half a millennium ago, Leonardo da Vinci sketched the first human-powered ornithopter. For centuries since, engineers have attempted to build a human-powered aircraft with flapping wings. Now, a University of Toronto PhD candidate made aviation history with the first ornithopter of its kind to fly continuously.

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Over half a millennium ago, Leonardo da Vinci sketched the first human-powered ornithopter. For centuries since, engineers have attempted to build a human-powered aircraft with flapping wings. Now, a University of Toronto PhD candidate made aviation history with the first ornithopter of its kind to fly continuously.

Credit: Todd Reichert, University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS)

Credit: Todd Reichert, University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS)

Todd Reichert has achieved what's believed to be an aviation first.  He built a human-powered aircraft,  "Snowbird," with flapping wings which he hopes has set a world record.  Under his power and control, the wing-flapping device sustained both altitude and airspeed for 19.3 seconds, and covered a distance of over 475 feet at an average speed of 15.9 miles per hour.

Built from carbon fiber, foam, and balsa wood, the Snowbird weighs just 94 lbs. and has a wingspan of 105 feet, which is comparable to that of a Boeing 737--amazingly, the Snowbird weighs less than all of the pillows on board.

The record-breaking flight occurred on August 2 at the Great Lakes Gliding Club in Tottenham, Ont., and was witnessed by the vice-president of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the world-governing body for air sports and aeronautical world records.  According to a university release, the official record claim was filed this month, and the FAI is expected to confirm the ornithopter's world record at its meeting in October.

An article covering the project back in 2004 explains how a human-powered ornithopter works:

The full-scale ornithopter is an engine powered aircraft that carries one pilot. All of the thrust and nearly all of the lift is created by the mechanical flapping of the ornithopter's wings. The two wings of the craft are joined by a centre section which is moved up and down by pylons connected to the drivetrain. The wings' thrust is due primarily to a low-pressure region around the leading edge, which integrates to provide a force known as "leading-edge suction". The wings also passively twist in response to the flapping. This is due to a structure that is torsionally compliant in just the right amount to allow efficient thrusting ("aeroelastic tailoring"). It should be noted, though, that twisting is required only to prevent flow separation on sections along the wing. It does not produce thrust in the same way as required by sharp-edged wings with little leading-edge suction.

The accomplishment took more than Reichert's will and dedication. The Snowbird development team also included a couple of University of Toronto students, community volunteers, and UTIAS Professor Emeritus James D. DeLaurier, who laid much of the foundation for a full-scale piloted omithopter.

"Throughout history, countless men and women have dreamt of flying like a bird under their own power, and hundreds, if not thousands have attempted to achieve it. This represents one of the last of the aviation firsts," said Reichert.

HPO The Snowbird from U of T Engineering on Vimeo.

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12 comments
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  • RE: Human-powered 'flapping-wing' plane first ever to take flight (video)

    But it doesnt run Modern Warfare 2, so who cares.

    Nah lol, that's wicked-awesome. Looked like some sort of serene, majestic bird right at the end. You'd have to be very, very in-shape to engage in any distanced "flights" though.
    Wodenhelm
    • Just catch a thermal.

      what you saw in action was a glider, not a human-powered ornithopter.
      frgough
      • RE: Human-powered 'flapping-wing' plane first ever to take flight (video)

        @frgough I will forward this article to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!
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      • RE: Human-powered 'flapping-wing' plane first ever to take flight (video)

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  • Hmm. Towed into the air by a car

    doesn't quite qualify as human-powered. Look at the video closely. What you see is a glider in operation. The bendy wings didn't do jack squat. The glider was towed into the air by a car, then glided for 19.3 seconds while the pilot made the wings go bendy, bendy.
    frgough
    • RE: Human-powered 'flapping-wing' plane first ever to take flight (video)

      @frgough

      One of the few times I agree with you. It's a glider with bendy wings that needed a tow to get airborne.

      When they produce one which gets airborne under its own power (human or mechanical, internal) and can flap around like a birdie, then I'll accept it as a "first". It'd be nice if it could VTOL like a birdie, but that would be an additional feature, in my book.
      M.R. Kennedy
  • I think getting it started with a tow line attached to a

    car is a cheat is it not? Still it might be amusing to think that the old joke about I just flew in from Chicago and boy are my arms tired might actually no longer a play on words but simply a fact:P

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    James Quinn
  • Several inexpert opinions do not negate the facts

    How long do you think the best sailplane moving at that (very low) speed would travel before it dropped 5 m? Very, very little distance. The fact is that lift and thrust provided by the flapping of the wings keeps the plane travelling level (and in fact rising for a little way). It was not operating as a glider, and if the pilot had been able to continue supplying the same power, it could have flown on for mile after mile.
    Elroch
  • RE: Human-powered 'flapping-wing' plane first ever to take flight (video)

    A very interesting posting and congratulation to UTIAS for this history-making demonstration.
    Unfortunately the low power to weight ratio (of a man) and the inflexibility of the wing means that forward thrust, and so lift is limited. So any flapping flight from this ornithopter will be limited in attainable hight and distance. If the wing could reduce surface area on the up stroke (like birds do) then less drag and more forward thrust (and so lift) will be generated.
    It's an interesting idea that I wish them luck with further development.
    Agnostic_OS