The First Ever Flight of a Pedal-Powered, Wing-Flapping Vehicle

By Jennifer Welsh | September 23, 2010 1:03 pm

August 2nd marked the first human-powered flight of an ornithopter. Wait, a what?

It’s pronounced awr-nuh-thop-ter, and it’s an aircraft propelled by flapping wings, like a bird. First sketched by Leonardo da Vinci in 1485, people have been trying to improve on his design–and build a working model–for centuries. A group at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Aerospace Studies made their own design, and in August, they successfully flew the first human-powered ornithopter. The pilot, a PhD candidate named Todd Reichert, sat in a tiny cockpit pedaling furiously to make the wings gracefully flap.

Reichert explained the world’s obsession with this strange machine:

“It’s the original aeronautical dream, people first looking at birds saying, ‘I want to do that, I want to flap my wings like a bird,'” said Reichert, laughing as he recounted the four years it took for his project to take flight. [Winnipeg Free Press]

The flight took place on August 2nd and was attended by a representative of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the world-governing body for air sports and aeronautical world records, who was on hand to verify the world-record flight. The papers claiming the world’s-first record were submitted this week, and the team is hoping it will become official in October.

ornithopterThe craft has a wing span of 105 feet (comparable to a Boeing 737) and weighs just over 90 pounds. It was designed and built by a team of 30 led by University of Toronto professor James DeLaurier, and cost about $200,000 (Canadian) to build. To get the ginormous plane in the air, team members pulled it with a car until it was airborne and after about 65 flights, they were successful.

“Thousands of people have tried to do this for hundreds of years,” said Reichert. “To be honest, I don’t think it’s really set in yet that I’m the one who has been successful. I was pushing with everything I had. When I finally let go and landed, I was hit with a breadth of excitement. It was pretty wild.” [Vancouver Sun]

To power the plane, which is made mostly of carbon fiber, balsa wood, and foam, the pilot sits in a tiny cockpit below the wings, pedaling like a Tour de France racer on speed. The pedals push on a wire and pulley system connected to the wings, which makes them flap. The mechanics are so simple that you can even build your own, unmanned, ornithopter. Reichert trained for four weeks for the flight, losing almost 20 pounds to ease the burden on the aircraft.

The machine’s 19-second, 145-metre flight — believed to be a first for an [human-powered] ornithopter in aviation history — is the “completion of something that people have dreamt about for centuries,” Reichert said Wednesday. “Through all these times thousands of people have tried and no one has been able to (achieve continuous flight).” [Winnipeg Free Press]

DeLaurier, who is one of the world’s experts on ornithopters, made his own aviation first in 2006 by flying a motorized, manned ornithopter, but this, the first human-powered flight, was DeLaurier’s real life ambition.

“(Reichert’s) ornithopter has since landed, but I’m still hovering a couple feet off the ground. It was a moment that’s difficult to describe,” DeLaurier said. [The Star]

View more videos at the University of Toronto’s Engineering school’s Vimeo page and pictures on their Flickr account.

Related content:
Discoblog: Video: The Delicate Flutter of Robotic Butterfly Wings
DISCOVER: Flying Machine
DISCOVER: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About… Leonardo da Vinci
DISCOVER: The Flight of the Butterfly
DISCOVER: The Physics of. . . Insect Flight

Image: Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, U of T

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology
  • bigjohn756

    I wonder how they prove that it is flying because of the flapping wings rather than simply gliding from the speed built up from the takeoff pull?

  • http://Untitledvanityproject.blogspot.com Rhacodactylus

    This is very cool, but i don’t get why everyone is acting like it’s a miracle. As materials and designs improve, more and more becomes possible.

  • UH1H

    Big John is right. This is a flapping wing glider, nothing more.

    If they make one that takes off from the ground on its own, flies a figure 8, and then lands, just as the human powered Gossamer Albatross first did, then I’ll be impressed.

    Till then this is an interesting gimmick, but still a gimmick.

  • Chorete

    I have a never tested a design of mine which is much simpler.
    I alway wonder why designers of whatever always follow the exixting trends even if they are trying to design something extraordinary.
    They just copied the Gossamer and installed some cables to move the wings.
    The cockpit has a large crossection, but worse, the transmitting mechanism that indeeed has a large ratio must be not too efficient.
    My system:
    Just make one laarge wing. You do not need such a long tail.
    Then hang the pilot from it like in a hang glider and then make push-ups on the hang bar.
    You mus help the hands with the legs using some kind of geometrical contraption.
    According to the third Law of Newton it is the same to say taht you are doing pushups or that the entire wing is flapping in a much efficient parallel way than the birds.
    I offer this idea to tha Canadian friends.
    Chorete

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