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The Ornithopter

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Sean Kinkade Skybird


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J. Degan's ornithopter, 1812

An ornithopter is a type of flying machine that attempts to fly by imitating the flapping of a bird's wings. It was first devised by Leonardo da Vinci in the late 1400s, and many others tried unsuccessfully during the 1800s to fly this type of aircraft.

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An ornithopter -- it's every bit as impractical as it looks.

Some ornithopters were propelled with oars; others used the arms and legs of the occupants for power. Some ornithopters were to be used with the aid of an inflated balloon. The word comes from the Greek words for bird and wing.

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Da Vinci's ornithopter

This sketch by Leonardo da Vinci shows his design for a century ornithopter flying machine

Edward Frost of Cambridgeshire, England, constructed an ornithopter of willow, silk, and feathers in 1902. Frost was later president of the Royal Aeronautical Society.




Credits - Gary Bradshaw; To Fly Is Everything



The Ornithopter

An ornithopter (from Greek ornithos "bird" and pteron "wing") is an aircraft that flies by flapping its wings. Designers seek to imitate the flapping-wing flight of birds, bats, and insects. Though machines may differ in form, they are usually built on the same scale as these flying creatures. Manned ornithopters have also been built, and some successful flights have been reported.


The Early History Of The Ornithopter

The idea of constructing wings in order to imitate the flight of birds dates to the ancient Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus. The first attempt at mechanical flight is attributed to Abbas Ibn Firnas, who launched a rudimentary ornithopter from the Mount of the Bride (Jabal al-'Arus) in the Rusafa Area, near Córdoba, Spain in 875 AD. Roger Bacon, writing in 1260, was among the first to consider a technological means of flight. Around 1490, Leonardo da Vinci began to study the flight of birds. He grasped that humans are too heavy, and not strong enough, to fly using wings simply attached to the arms. Therefore he proposed a device in which the aviator lies down on a plank and works two large, membranous wings using hand levers, foot pedals, and a system of pulleys.

The first ornithopters capable of flight were constructed in France in the 1870s. Gustave Trouvé's 1870 model flew a distance of 70 meters in a demonstration for the French Academy of Sciences. The wings were flapped by gunpowder charges activating a bourdon tube. Jobert in 1871 used a rubber band to power a small model bird. Alphonse Penaud, Hureau de Villeneuve, Victor Tatin, and others soon followed with their own designs.

Around 1890, Lawrence Hargrave built several ornithopters powered by steam or compressed air. He introduced the use of small flapping wings providing the thrust for a larger fixed wing. This eliminated the need for gear reduction, thereby simplifying the construction. To achieve a more birdlike appearance, this approach is not generally favored today.

In the 1930s, Erich von Holst carried the rubber band powered bird model to a high state of development and great realism. Also in the 1930s, Alexander Lippisch and other researchers in Germany harnessed the piston internal combustion engine.


Manned Flight

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Schmid 1942 Ornithopter

The UTIAS Ornithopter No.1

Perhaps because the prevailing technology is fixed-wing aircraft, people are mainly aware of the failed attempts at flapping-wing flight. This article describes only the more successful attempts. The machines are of two general types: those with engines, and those powered by the muscles of the pilot.

In 1929, a man-powered ornithopter designed by Alexander Lippisch flew a distance of 250 to 300 meters after tow launch. The flight duration was necessarily short due to the limitations of human muscle power. Since a tow launch was used, some have questioned whether the aircraft was capable of sustained flight, however brief. Lippisch asserted that the aircraft was actually flying, not making an extended glide. Later tow-launched flights include Bedford Maule (1942), Emil Hartmann (1959), and Vladimir Toporov (1993). All faced similar limitations due to the reliance on human muscle power.

In 1942, Adalbert Schmid flew a motorized, manned ornithopter at Munich-Laim. It was driven by small flapping wings mounted at the sides of the fuselage, behind a larger fixed wing. Fitted with a 3 hp Sachs motorcycle engine, it made flights up to 15 minutes in duration. Schmid later constructed a 10 hp ornithopter based on the Grunau-Baby IIa sailplane, which was flown in 1947. The second aircraft had flapping outer wing panels.[1]

In 2005, Yves Rousseau was given the Paul Tissandier Diploma, awarded by the FAI for contributions to the field of aviation. Rousseau attempted his first human-muscle-powered flight with flapping wings in 1995. On 20 April 2006, at his 212th attempt, he succeeded in flying a distance of 64 metres, observed by officials of the Aero Club de France. Unfortunately, on his 213th flight attempt, a gust of wind led to a wing breaking up, causing the pilot to be gravely injured and rendered paraplegic.[2]

A team at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies, headed by Professor James DeLaurier, worked for several years on an engine-powered, piloted ornithopter. In July 2006, at the Bombardier Airfield at Downsview Park in Toronto, Professor DeLaurier's machine, the UTIAS Ornithopter No.1 made a jet-assisted takeoff and 14-second flight. According to DeLaurier,[3] the jet was necessary for sustained flight, but the flapping wings did most of the work.[4]


Recent Developments


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George R. White and Canadian inventor Doug Froebe kept building these feathered things well into the 1930s:

Practical applications capitalize on the resemblance to birds or insects. The Colorado Division of Wildlife has used these machines to help save the endangered Gunnison Sage Grouse. An artificial hawk under the control of an operator causes the grouse to remain on the ground so they can be captured for study.

Because ornithopters resemble birds or insects, they could be used for military applications, such as spying without alerting the enemies that they are under surveillance. AeroVironment, Inc., led by Paul B. MacCready (Gossamer Albatross), has developed a remotely piloted ornithopter the size of a large insect for possible spy missions.

MacCready also developed in the mid-1980s, for the Smithsonian Institution, a half-scale radio controlled replica of the giant pterosaur, Quetzalcoatlus northropi. It was built to star in the IMAX movie On the Wing. The model had a wingspan of 5.5 meters (18 feet) and featured a complex, computerized autopilot control system, just as the full-size pterosaur relied on its neuromuscular system to make constant adjustments in flight.

Researchers hope to eliminate the motors and gears of current designs by more closely imitating animal flight muscles. Georgia Tech scientist Robert C. Michelson is developing a Reciprocating Chemical Muscle for use in micro-scale flapping-wing aircraft. Michelson uses the term "entomopter" for this type of ornithopter. SRI International is developing polymer artificial muscles which may also be used for flapping-wing flight.

In 2002, Krister Wolff and Peter Nordin of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, built a flapping wing robot that learned flight techniques.[5] The balsa wood design was driven by machine learning software technology known as a steady state linear evolutionary algorithm. Inspired by natural evolution, the software “evolves” in response to feedback on how well it performs a given task. Although confined to a laboratory apparatus, their ornithopter evolved behavior for maximum sustained lift force and horizontal movement.[6]

Since 2002, Prof. Theo Van Holten has been working on an ornithopter which is constructed like a helicopter. The device is called the ornicopter [7] and was made by constructing the main rotor so that it would have no reaction torque at all.



As demonstrated by birds, flapping wings offer potential advantages in maneuverability and energy savings compared with fixed-wing aircraft, as well as potentially vertical take-off and landing. It has been suggested that these advantages are greatest at small sizes and low flying speeds.

Unlike airplanes and helicopters, the driving airfoils of the ornithopter have a flapping or oscillating motion, instead of rotary. As with helicopters, the wings usually have a combined function of providing both lift and thrust. Theoretically, the flapping wing can be set to zero angle of attack on the upstroke, so it passes easily through the air. Since typically the flapping airfoils produce both lift and thrust, drag-inducing structures are minimized. These two advantages potentially allow a high degree of efficiency.



  1.  Bruno Lange, Typenhandbuch der deutschen Luftfahrttechnik, Koblenz, 1986.
  2.  FAI web site.
  3.  Dr. James DeLaurier's report on the Flapper's Flight July 8, 2006
  4.  University of Toronto ornithopter takes off July 31, 2006
  5.  Winged robot learns to fly New Scientist, August 2002
  6.  Creation of a learning, flying robot by means of Evolution In Proceedings of the Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Conference, GECCO 2002 (pp. 1279-1285). New York, 9-13 July 2002. Morgan Kaufmann. Awarded "Best Paper in Evolutionary Robotics" at GECCO 2002.
  7.  Ornicopter project
  8.  "FLYING HIGH: Bird Man". Scientific American Frontiers Archive. Retrieved 2007-10-26. 
  9. | Wookiee ornithopter
  10.  Narlock, Joel (2007-07-20). "Soft Target: The Air". Dan River Press/Conservatory of American Letters, ISBN 0897542274, ISBN 978-0897542272, 304 pages. Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  11.  Magic: The Gathering Card database | Ornithopter card




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