Canadian flies like bird, team claims ornithopter record

September 30, 2010

A team at the University of Toronto has filed a world record claim for the first sustained flight of a human-powered ornithopter—an aircraft that achieves thrust from the flapping of its wings.

The Human-Powered Ornithopter Project announced this month that its aircraft, the Snowbird, completed several sustained flights July 31 and Aug. 2, the longest of which lasted 19.3 seconds on Aug. 2 at the Ronan Aerodrome, Great Lakes Gliding Club. The record claim has been submitted to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) for approval. Todd Reichert, a 28-year-old engineering PhD candidate at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS), was at the controls for the flight.

A video released by the team shows the craft towed by a vehicle, then lifting off and releasing the tow, flapping its wings with the early morning sun at its back. An ornithopter produces lift in the usual way, the team notes on its website, but thrust comes from the flapping of the wings—which in the case of the Snowbird is driven by a rowing mechanism operated by the pilot.

“This thrust is produced by placing the wing at a lower angle of attack, relative to the local flow velocity, on the upstroke, and at a higher angle of attack on the downstroke,” the website explains. The design had to allow the wing to twist at the proper magnitude and phase, a challenge that has been difficult to tackle. The project cites student theses on the subject of ornithopters that date back to 1988.