Human-powered ornithopter becomes first ever to achieve sustained flight (w/ Video)

September 22, 2010, University of Toronto
Photo courtesy of Todd Reichert, University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS)

Aviation history was made when the University of Toronto's human-powered aircraft with flapping wings became the first of its kind to fly continuously.

The "Snowbird" performed its record-breaking flight on August 2 at the Great Lakes Gliding Club in Tottenham, Ont., witnessed by the vice-president (Canada) of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the world-governing body for air sports and aeronautical world records. 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.

For centuries engineers have attempted such a feat, ever since Leonardo da Vinci sketched the first human-powered ornithopter in 1485.

But under the power and piloting of Todd Reichert, an Engineering PhD candidate at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS), the wing-flapping device sustained both altitude and airspeed for 19.3 seconds, and covered a distance of 145 metres at an average speed of 25.6 kilometres per hour.

"The Snowbird represents the completion of an age-old aeronautical dream," says lead developer and project manager Reichert. "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."

The Snowbird weighs just 94 lbs. and has a wing span of 32 metres (105 feet). Although its wingspan is comparable to that of a Boeing 737, the Snowbird weighs less than all of the pillows on board. Pilot Reichert lost 18 lbs. of body weight this past summer to facilitate flying the aircraft.

With sustainability in mind, Aerospace Engineering graduate students of UTIAS learned to design and build lightweight and efficient structures. The research also promoted "the use of the human body and spirit," says Reichert.

"The use of human power, when walking or cycling, is an efficient, reliable, healthy and sustainable form of transportation. Though the aircraft is not a practical method of transport, it is also meant to act as an inspiration to others to use the strength of their body and the creativity of their mind to follow their dreams."

Photo courtesy of Todd Reichert, University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS)

The Snowbird development team is comprised of two University of Toronto Engineering graduate students: Reichert, and Cameron Robertson (MASc 2009) as the chief structural engineer; UTIAS Professor Emeritus James D. DeLaurier as faculty advisor; and community volunteers Robert and Carson Dueck. More than 20 students from the University of Toronto and up to 10 exchange students from Poitiers University, France, and Delft Technical University, Netherlands, also participated in the project.

"This achievement is the direct result of Todd Reichert's dedication, perseverance, and ability and adds to the already considerable legacy of Jim DeLaurier, UTIAS's great ornithopter pioneer," said Professor David Zingg, Director of UTIAS. "It also reflects well on the rigorous education Todd received at the University of Toronto. We're very proud of Todd and the entire team for this outstanding achievement in aviation history."

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4.6 / 5 (9) Sep 22, 2010
Now the Spice can flow.
4.2 / 5 (5) Sep 22, 2010
I'm not sure I would give any credit to the power of the human here. Couldn't wing lift alone be capable of this exact same distance of flight? Any help here would be greatly appreciated as I don't intend to take a class on aerodynamics any time soon.
4.5 / 5 (2) Sep 22, 2010
i sure hope the pilot has the stamina of lance armstrong, cause from the looks of it you need to do a whole lot of flapping just to maintain altitude
5 / 5 (3) Sep 22, 2010
Not as funny as the other ornithopter videos I've seen. Yeah, I'm not too impressed since it was towed along for quite a bit, gaining both altitude and speed. I'm sure their pedaling added something, but this didn't seem much better than a glider.
3 / 5 (2) Sep 22, 2010
Now the Spice can flow.

What, The Sleeper Has Awakened?
5 / 5 (3) Sep 22, 2010
I was very interested until experiencing the massive disappointment of seeing the craft towed aloft. This (for me) makes the craft nothing more than a “flapping glider”. I’m not familiar with the rules for the actual record, but in my mind the craft would need to propel itself enough using the “flap” to leave the bounds of the earth and not achieve this via tow. Gliders are towed aloft; this craft was towed aloft, the flapping also doesn’t seem to propel the craft forward in the video, the towing obscures this as well. The craft would have to increase in speed and altitude to show the flapping was propelling it BUT that also should be enough for take off as well shouldn’t it. So what sets this craft apart from any other glider with the exception of the flapping?
not rated yet Sep 22, 2010
It just seems like a glider to me with the addition of some way to move the end of the wings. There is no way in hell those flaps did anything at all.
not rated yet Sep 23, 2010
I have to surrender to the general skepticism on ths subject here -- this thing requires a small army to get going, looks extremely fragile, cannot take off by itself, and cannot even hold altitude.

How is that different from every other "ornithopter" we've seen over the last decade?
not rated yet Sep 23, 2010
Its a good start despite the towing it needed [which is a small thing really when you consider the potential coolness of ornithopter sports ;)
not rated yet Sep 23, 2010
What is the significance of take off at dawn? Is there an updraft?
not rated yet Sep 23, 2010
What is the significance of take off at dawn? Is there an updraft?

Maybe something to do with cold air being denser? Perhaps increases the resistance on the wings flapping, thus more lift... at a guess.

Also could just be to make the video prettier. :P
5 / 5 (3) Sep 23, 2010
There is less turbulence in the air, when the ground is not heated up from the sun. This maximizes air-flight system's efficiency.

Anyways it seems pretty funny way to employ human power for flying an aircraft. I've watched few videos of this "ornitohopter", one of them clearly shows jumping motion of the , and a little bit of altitude gained at one point.

Though I'm skeptic on whether this system uses the human power more effectively than a simple crankshaft and propeller wold do dew losses from the complexity of the flapping motion.

And yes, towing was disappointment for me too.
Sep 23, 2010
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5 / 5 (1) Sep 23, 2010
A glider would not be able to maintain airspeed or elevation. The towing was to break the rolling resistance of the wheels. Yeah, not very impressive, but they still achieved human powered sustained flight through the flapping of the crafts wings -- and they are the first to achieve that.

But all this really is, is a PR stunt by a universities applied materials class. The real stunt was getting the thing light enough.
not rated yet Sep 23, 2010
I agree, falling with style a la Buzz Lightyear. Compare this with the pedal powered Channel flight and it has a long way to go.
not rated yet Sep 23, 2010
I for one am impressed - who would think our communist neighbours will try to build an airforce like this - no doubt an anomoly - I wonder how it works during their six month winters.

"For the people, by the people" = communist message!

As for the ornithopter, I am not so sure the shape of it renders it an efficient glider, so the flapping may indeed have had enough lift to keep the device stable, instead of it immediately falling back to ground.

I think we'll need to see further testing and proofing before we all start flapping around in one of those things heh
not rated yet Sep 23, 2010
yawm...a glider has a wingspan much less than 100ft!!! and gliders DO maintain altitude and speed...thus they can stay up for hours. Not taking off under its own power makes it just a glider with higher drag flappers.
not rated yet Sep 23, 2010
gossamer albatross crossed the english channel years ago by pedal power
not rated yet Sep 24, 2010
yawm...a glider has a wingspan much less than 100ft!!! and gliders DO maintain altitude and speed..." spoken like a class A moron. Gliders can only maintain altitude when there is wind and/or updrafting air. You shouldn't conmment when you are so idiotically wrong. Wait until there is at least a slim chance you have something valid to say.

What is the significance of take off at dawn? Is there an updraft?

the main reason is that the air is still. any breeze can confuse readings, cause turbulence, adversely affect flight.
not rated yet Sep 25, 2010
Boy! What a jaded bunch! To answer a few questions:
Morning flight: Air is most lightly to be still. No updrafts. No horizontal winds.
Performance: Without generating lift plane will quickly (few seconds) fall to the ground.
The Tow: There are several phases of flight that must be developed: Take off, climb, straight and level flight, turning, decent, landing (and several more). Here they are demonstrating straight and level flight Not unlike the Wright Bros. down hill rail launched first flights.
Level Flight: In still air plane will fall to ground. Maintaining level flight means it's really flying. Gliders only maintain level flight if there is an external source of lift (raising air).
-john- COMM, AGI, CFI
not rated yet Sep 25, 2010
Not jaded at all. Now I can’t speak for everyone else, but to me, the Wright brothers set the original standard for mechanically powered flight and the Gossamer Albatross (an amazing achievement) set the standard for human-powered flight. Neither of which achieved flight via tow. Also, I don’t recall the name of the vehicle, but a mechanically powered ornithopter has achieved flight and IT was not towed aloft either. This (again, for me) shows the craft in this article just isn’t efficient enough to achieve flight because it needs a tow to become airborne. It’s just my standard (based on other historical first-flights) that a human-powered ornithopter must achieve flight without the help of another vehicle or device and leave the bounds of the earth under it’s own power. How is that jaded? I’m really just describing a standard way to measure powered flight based on what other craft have already achieved. Would we have credited the Wrights with the first powered flight had they towed?
not rated yet Sep 26, 2010
" me, the Wright brothers set the original standard for mechanically powered flight and the Gossamer Albatross (an amazing achievement) set the standard for human-powered flight. Neither of which achieved flight via tow."

While technically true, in 1903 the Wrights began using a catapult mechanism (weight & derrick) with the Wright Flyer II at Huffman Prairie near Dayton OH, IIRC.
3 / 5 (1) Sep 26, 2010
While technically true, in 1903 the Wrights began using a catapult mechanism (weight & derrick) with the Wright Flyer II at Huffman Prairie near Dayton OH, IIRC.

and your point? because technically true is what this is about, if you can't take off under your own power than it just doesn't equal the standards that have already bet set. So what if the Wrights towed or catapulted during the development process, the flight you reference was not counted as the first powered flight was it? The first powered flight was not towed or catapulted. There were others attempting powered flight at about the same time as the Wrights. One notable failure was a craft launched from the top of a boat in the New York area (if I remember correctly) and it promptly crashed into the river. There was controversy that it was actually a powered flight. Then shortly after the Wrights flew using only the power of their craft and all doubt ceased. Achieve flight under your own power and no questions remain.
3 / 5 (1) Sep 26, 2010
With all due respect, this is an amazing step in it's own right. Pun intended. They still have a small way to go to get the bird up to speed without the assist, but pay attention to the real achievement exhibited in the dynamic and graceful movement of those wings. It's subtle but it's there. If you review all the video footage, you can actually see that the plane GAINED altitude while under pilot power. You can also see that the pilot has some work to do as it precipitously lost altitude just before the end of the flight due to what appears to be piloting mistake. Perhaps exhaustion??? This may not be the spectacular Gossamer record (which will always be held up as such a monumental human achievement) nor is it the boundary-busting invention of Yves Rossy The Swiss Jet Man, but this is absolutely remarkable in it's own right and instills awe for it's beauty, perseverance and subtlety even if the avian mimicry will likely not set a new standard for flight.
not rated yet Sep 26, 2010
Shouldn't it be possible to make a solar powered aircraft about this size with an purely electric motor that is capable of carrying a human?

Why bother with such silly technologies? Sure, ok, maybe one day someone successfully builds a kit that can allow the top 1% of atheletes to fly under their own what? It's not like we need more daredevils and waste of resources on stunts like this.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 27, 2010
Wright brothers used wing warping instead of aerolons and rudder. I would think that this is more efficient (less drag) than the comptemporary design but much harder to engineer.

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