September 23, 2010

U of T ornithopter makes history

TECHNOLOGY - Graduate students at the University of Toronto have built and successfully flown a man-powered ornithopter (an engineless plane) which flaps its wings like an eagle. Todd Reichert, a PhD student, led the team that constructed the aircraft and went through a long series of test flights.

The plane, the Snowbird, has a wingspan of 32 meters and looks a bit like an eagle in terms of the way its wings move. Reichert sits in a tiny cockpit beneath the wings and pushes a bar with his feet to operate a system of wires that pull the wings up and down. He steers the plane using metal bars attached to rudders.

The Snowbird ornithopter is made mostly of carbon fibre (the same material used to make superlight bicycles and supercars) and wrapped in a thin polyester skin. Despite being 32 meters long the entire plane weighs less than 100 pounds (45 kg). Reichert himself had to shed nearly 20 pounds and double his leg strength before attempting the flight.

The plane does require a tow car for the first little bit to get its forward motion going, but once that is done its up to the pilot to the device into the air. So far Reichert has managed to fly it for 19 seconds, covering 145 metres at 25.6 kilometres an hour and making a controlled landing on the testing grounds of a flying club near Tottenham, Ont.

It doesn't seem like much, but its still an aeronautical first as the world’s first successful human-powered ornithopter flight.

The project to build it took 4 years and started with computer simulations using Leonardo da Vinci’s famous 1485 sketches of such a machine as a starting point. They modified the designs and later 20 fellow students assembled the plane in a barn in Tottenham. They began doing test flights in Autumn 2009, crashing numerous times and making design improvements.

The professor overseeing the project, Prof. DeLaurier attributed the project’s success to modern materials, sophisticated computer programs and advancements in the understanding of aerodynamics. “When you try to tell someone what you’re working on, they kind of back away slowly,” he says. “But when you see it fly, it takes your breath away.”

The finished ornithopter will eventually be donated to a museum, but not until the group who designed it use it to learn more about aviation.

The History of Ornithopters

Early 1000s – A young monk named Eilmer tried to fly in the western English village of Malmesbury by attaching a pair of cloth wings to his arms and jumping off the top of the local abbey. He reputedly sailed about 200 metres before crashing on a local street, breaking both his legs. He survived the mishap and lived to a ripe old age, being one of the first to spot Halley’s comet in 1066.

1480s and ’90s – Leonardo da Vinci sketched designs for various flying machines in his notebooks. In one sketch the pilot lay on his stomach and uses stirrups and hand cranks, attached to pulleys, to move the wings up and down. In another design, a harness attached to the pilot’s head steers a rudder.

1870 – Frenchman Gustave Trouve, who later designed an electric car, built an unmanned ornithopter powered by a crude internal combustion engine fuelled with gunpowder. His invention flew for approx. 70 metres on one occasion and is believed to be the first flapping-wing aircraft to fly.

1890s – Otto Lillienthal, a German, built a series of gliders with fabric stretched tight over a willow frame and flew them by jumping off hilltops and buildings. Two of these had small engines that propelled the wings up and down. His achievement was considered more gliding than anything else. He died in a crash in 1896.

1929 – Another German, Alexander Lippisch, designed a human-powered ornithopter flown by his students and towed into the air. A foot pump activated cables that flapped the wings. According to claims it successfully flew more than 200 metres, but it was never verified or repeated. Lippisch maintained it flew, others say it was merely gliding due to the towing.

1940s – Adalbard Schmid built and flew a motorized aircraft with both fixed wings and an extra pair of flapping wings behind it. It was able to stay in the air for 15 minutes at a time before running out of fuel.

2006 – James DeLaurier and his students designed and flew an engine-powered ornithopter with a 24-horsepower turbo engine. It flew for 14 seconds at 88 kmph but crashed.

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