December 3, 2004 3:56 AM PST

The wings on this plane go up and down

Come spring, a group of Canadian researchers will try to realize an age-old dream advanced by both science and mythology: to fly like a bird.

With help from his graduate students, James DeLaurier, a professor at the University of Toronto's Institute for Aerospace Studies, has created an ornithopter--a full-size plane designed to get off the ground when its wings flap. Pilot Jack Sanderson will attempt to fly the contraption a few thousand feet next April.

If it succeeds, the flight will fulfill a dream that has foiled Icarus, Leonardo da Vinci and other, more modern aviation pioneers--that is, to achieve flight by means of undulating wings. In standard planes, an engine pushes the plane forward, and the lift is generated under a fixed wing. By contrast, the ornithopter is like a bird: The engine causes the wings to beat, which, in turn, creates the conditions for a lift.

"We are doing it to try to achieve humanity's oldest dream of flight, which hasn't been realized," DeLaurier said. "You might say we are trying for the beauty of it."

The flight will also represent the culmination of a decades-long drive for the aviation engineer, who began his career working on the Apollo project at NASA's Ames Laboratory in Mountain View, Calif.

DeLaurier made balsa wood ornithopter models as a kid and tinkered with the idea of making bigger ones through the 1970s and 1980s. In 1991, DeLaurier created a radio-controlled, motorized ornithopter that achieved sustained flight. The Federation Aeronautique International (FAI) recognized it as the first flight of a motorized ornithopter. Since then, others have achieved similar flights.

The machine to be tested in the coming trials differs in key ways. The ornithopter from the 1991 flight was about a fourth the size of a regular plane and flew by remote control. The ornithopter in the coming flight can accommodate a human, who will sit inside and fly it.

DeLaurier has been working on the machine since 1996. "We got it to go over 50mph down the runway, and we managed a few short hops," he said.

Mechanical problems, however, prevented the machine from taking flight. On one occasion, the chain fell off. Another time, a wing tip disintegrated and had to be replaced with Kevlar and carbon fiber. During yet another trial, hardened steel bolts fractured due to fatigue.

"If we were funded by NASA, we'd be off the ground by now," DeLaurier said.

Unlike Richard Branson and some of the backers of SpaceShipOne, the rocket that recently made an unprecedented

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28 comments

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Why?
Seriously. This just seems odd. I mean moving wings in planes is a cool idea for a movie like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow but in reality it seems like it could cause more problems then solutions. ???
Posted by Jonathan (832 comments )
Reply Link Flag
actually
I think planes would benefit greatly from this sort of thing. I imagine these sort of planes would be easier to take off, control, and be safer.

Take off because this way you only need a vertical runway. Control and safety because the whole thing doesn't have to be hurtling at some ridiculous speed just to stay in the air.

I'm no physics major or scientist, however. I'd love to hear some educated feedback on this vehicle.
Posted by (54 comments )
Link Flag
Why?
Seriously. This just seems odd. I mean moving wings in planes is a cool idea for a movie like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow but in reality it seems like it could cause more problems then solutions. ???
Posted by Jonathan (832 comments )
Reply Link Flag
actually
I think planes would benefit greatly from this sort of thing. I imagine these sort of planes would be easier to take off, control, and be safer.

Take off because this way you only need a vertical runway. Control and safety because the whole thing doesn't have to be hurtling at some ridiculous speed just to stay in the air.

I'm no physics major or scientist, however. I'd love to hear some educated feedback on this vehicle.
Posted by (54 comments )
Link Flag
Nature has the answer.
Flapping wings are an ancient concept. And nature has explored
the limits for this kind of power. Small bodies, eg.,insects, bats
and sparrows, flap. Larger bodies, eg., eagles, vultures, and
condors, flap only when absolutely necessary, otherwise they
glide/soar on fixed wings. Even larger bodies have no chance at
all of successfully using flapping wings.

Why explore the obvious?
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Nature has unrevealed secrets
Researchers are exploring nature's way of achieving flight for the same reason they are building submarines that swim like a Tuna. Nature has simply demonstrated an extreme efficiency that man has yet to duplicate. The amount of energy required for a Tuna to reach top speed is far less than that of any similarly-sized man made sub. The design of birds is similarly efficient, and as an unmanned aircraft, the concept may have more potential than any current design.

Your comment that only small insects beat their wings seems somewhat limited in view and scope. Large birds may glide, and a wing-flapping craft may also be able to glide. But all of those birds lift off the groud with their wings. In prehistoric times, there were much larger flying animals and insects including dragonflys with a wingspan over a yard.

This research is being conducted in an effort to understand how nature achieves such dramatic and successful results. In other words, people are trying to *learn.* To sit back and stare at the world and suggest that nature tried it and it failed seems to me to be a prohibitive and defeatist attitude. Not to mention, that nature is actually more successful at flight than man in many respects.
Posted by David Arbogast (1709 comments )
Link Flag
Nature has the answer.
Flapping wings are an ancient concept. And nature has explored
the limits for this kind of power. Small bodies, eg.,insects, bats
and sparrows, flap. Larger bodies, eg., eagles, vultures, and
condors, flap only when absolutely necessary, otherwise they
glide/soar on fixed wings. Even larger bodies have no chance at
all of successfully using flapping wings.

Why explore the obvious?
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Nature has unrevealed secrets
Researchers are exploring nature's way of achieving flight for the same reason they are building submarines that swim like a Tuna. Nature has simply demonstrated an extreme efficiency that man has yet to duplicate. The amount of energy required for a Tuna to reach top speed is far less than that of any similarly-sized man made sub. The design of birds is similarly efficient, and as an unmanned aircraft, the concept may have more potential than any current design.

Your comment that only small insects beat their wings seems somewhat limited in view and scope. Large birds may glide, and a wing-flapping craft may also be able to glide. But all of those birds lift off the groud with their wings. In prehistoric times, there were much larger flying animals and insects including dragonflys with a wingspan over a yard.

This research is being conducted in an effort to understand how nature achieves such dramatic and successful results. In other words, people are trying to *learn.* To sit back and stare at the world and suggest that nature tried it and it failed seems to me to be a prohibitive and defeatist attitude. Not to mention, that nature is actually more successful at flight than man in many respects.
Posted by David Arbogast (1709 comments )
Link Flag
tHE WINGS ON THIS PLANE GO UP AND DOWN
This was tried in Medicine Hat, Alberta, back in the 1950's. A friend of mine, Dick Northam agreed to try to fly it. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to get it airborne, the designer decided that they would tow it with a truck to get it off the ground. The "Ornithopter" as it was called, reached an altitude of about 30 to 40 feet then propmptly came down like a brick.
Luckily, my friend Dick was not hurt other than a few bruises and a sore butt.
I can't believe anyone would spend the time and money to try wing flapping again.
Posted by (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
tHE WINGS ON THIS PLANE GO UP AND DOWN
This was tried in Medicine Hat, Alberta, back in the 1950's. A friend of mine, Dick Northam agreed to try to fly it. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to get it airborne, the designer decided that they would tow it with a truck to get it off the ground. The "Ornithopter" as it was called, reached an altitude of about 30 to 40 feet then propmptly came down like a brick.
Luckily, my friend Dick was not hurt other than a few bruises and a sore butt.
I can't believe anyone would spend the time and money to try wing flapping again.
Posted by (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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