Centuries of cranks vindicated by human-powered ornithopter flight

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Centuries of cranks vindicated by human-powered ornithopter flight

Although the Snowbird, made of carbon fiber and balsa wood and with a 105-foot wingspan, could hardly be described as “practical,” to me this seems like a major aviation milestone: Somebody, specifically University of Toronto PhD student Todd Reichert and co-workers, finally did it. All those old black and white “wacky inventor” blooper reels set to goofy music can eat it. [via Toronto Star]


18 thoughts on “Centuries of cranks vindicated by human-powered ornithopter flight

  1. Bob A. says:

    This needed a tow from a car to get into the air. It’s not clear after that whether it’s flying due to the flapping or the boost it got from the car.

    Sorry, but the Wright brothers still rule.

    1. Roach says:

      It needs an assist to take off, but once it’s airborne they start flapping and it’s pretty clear they’re not losing any altitude or speed until they stop flapping, at which point it begins to drop almost immediately. Either they’ve created a very, very efficient glider that’s only efficient when flapping, or they’ve created a human-powered plane that just needs a little assistance on take-off.

    2. tre3 says:

      Don’t be so silly :p

      The Wright Brothers needed a launching rail to achieve their flight with their first craft – their first attempt was gravity assisted but Wilbur stalled and crashed after a 3 second flight.

      The second attempts were wind assisted (these launches had the rail on level ground). The wind that day was >15 knots – without it, they would have had problems reaching flight velocity.

      Later flights were achieved by using a counter weight that dropped from a tower – a plane catapult…

      It’s quite clear that flight was maintainable despite the human powered handicap. The tow cable was released at 1:42 and there’s at least 20 seconds of powered flight after which it starts to immediately lose altitude.

  2. Kirt says:

    That’s a significant amount of work for a very impractical device. I don’t know if I should be happy for their accomplishment or sad for the number of hours wasted to prove an idea to be ridiculous (although possible).

    I suppose we could still walk or take a horse and buggy across the continent to get from point A to point B. But after the invention of the internal combustion engine, what’s the point?

    I know this all sounds pretty negative and not conducive to promoting new ideas and the art of Making things; but honestly, I don’t understand the purpose of inventing new complex methods for doing the simplest of tasks. Enlighten me.

    1. jlynch says:

      You think this power system is more complex than an internal combustion engine? I don’t think so. And its way more efficient and environmentally friendly. Birds can still do a lot of maneuvers more efficiently and gracefully that our modern airplanes can do.

      1. Kirt says:

        A machine does not require a mass of moving parts to classify as complex. The complexity of this is the man power used to generate lift and the exercise regiment required beforehand to perform such a task.

        It’s complex because a common person (or should I say, “average pilot”) cannot pilot this vehicle. It requires specialized training and a the physique of an Olympian to operate for any measurable amount of time, or at the very least, to pilot a distance where the gain is greater than one could obtain walking or traveling on a bicycle.

        I could (with less effort, time and resources) do the same task in many other ways. The only purpose of this flight was to show that it could be done. Which can be said about a lot of experiments, but at some point you have to come to the realization that ultimately, it serves no purpose.

        1. tre3 says:

          “I could (with less effort, time and resources) do the same task in many other ways”

          And along the way, you would fail to innovate or ideate anything novel.

          Flapping wings are much more efficient than fixed wings – of course, there is something to be said of scale, however.

          You earlier asked the purpose – I ask you to look beyond what is in front of you. The proverbial “journey versus destination” absolutely applies here (as it typically does in projects of academia, like this one).

          I remember in my collegiate human powered adventures (I competed with land vehicles) learning quite a bit about composite design and fabrication and applying anthropometry to human-machine interaction. These skills I have applied in my working career and I would have otherwise not learned them. I also learned a lot about practical aerodynamics which I am itching to use (and in the coming months will have the practical opportunity) :)

          As for the average pilot part with respect to complexity…. How do you know? I’ve been perusing their website and don’t see much about how to control – it could be quite easy :p As for fitness – the pilot was no doubt fit, hardly an Olympian.

          Adding the human powered constraint necessitates innovation in other areas of design – particularly mechanical/aero efficiency, weight, controls, etc.

  3. vrandy.myopenid.com says:

    Let’s not forget Yves Rousseau who, on his 212th attempt, flew 64 meters in a human-powered ornithopter in 2006.

    (On his 213th attempt he broke his neck.)

  4. sk8sonh2o says:

    It’s a genuine flapping advance. The biggest obstacles to O-flight are the giant wingspan/weight conundrum and the flapping business. Here they’ve overcome the span problem and much of the flapping problem. The control issues can be computerized, airfoils can be optimized, and if the human is more fully integrated with the machine, the flapping will be easier. Get this thing up over a thermal and make a day out of it, charge $50K. Don’t forget, condors can’t take off from flat ground either. Cross it with Schweeb for launching the cliff ride of your life.

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and makezine.com. My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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