Semi-human-powered flight project gets off the ground ... just
By Eric Mack
January 22, 2012
A Dutch mechanical engineer is working on realizing da Vinci's dream of human-powered flight, with some help from modern technology. Jarnos Smeets is the driving force between the Human Birdwings Project, which utilizes a combination of gadgets including an HTC Wildfire S and a Wii remote. He claims to have conducted his first successful test flight this week, even though he didn't appear to get too far off the ground.
Smeets' basic concept is a little bit different than Jetman's, who managed to rocket himself across part of the Grand Canyon. Instead of a jetpack, a set of motorized wings made from a large kite sacrificed for the project and powered by a pair of brushless outrunner motors, is hooked on to the back of a (hopefully) willing participant.
The "pilot" also slips his arms through a pair of specially designed sleeves that are linked to the wings by a flexible connection and include an Android smartphone (the HTC Wildfires have been used so far) on each sleeve. When the pilot flaps his arms like a bird, the Android phones send speed information from their internal accelerometers via Bluetooth to a Seeduino microcontroller board on the back of the harness that then translates the human arm motions into motor-powered flaps of the wings.
The motorized propulsion system uses planetary gearboxes connected to eccentric shifts to achieve a range of motion that mimics a bird's wing-flap. That's all a technical way of saying the design converts human arm flaps into a more elegant motion that might actually generate some lift with the help of the wings.
Smeets also added a Wii remote mounted on the backplate of the harness to the original design, connecting its accelerometer with those in the Android smartphones to be able to tell the acceleration of the arms relative to that of the wings. Here's Smeets' schematic of the complete backplate that would be worn as a backpack by the pilot:
The wings themselves were constructed using lightweight kite fabric within a frame and with a series of custom-cut aerodynamic vertical ribs across the underside for stabilization. There's also a small tail-wing covering the mechanical parts of the apparatus that runs perpendicular to the main wing assemblies.
The project has been underway for several months now, and as you can see in the video of the test flight below, this early prototype does seem to suspend Smeets a few feet off the ground for at least a few seconds. Hardly a revolution, but a big first step, if it's legitimate. Now he says he will continue fine-tuning and tweaking the system to get it closer to the dream of da Vinci ... and Smeets.
Check out the first test run in the video below, and let us know what you think.
Ed's note: Some of our commenters have pointed to inconsistencies in this video, suggesting it's a fake. Smeet's has posted the following reply on YouTube in response to the issue:
"*UPDATE* Its amazing to see how this video created discussion. And I understand why. Ofcourse is an EDITED video! We combined two takes, the second take has a piece of ducktape on the wing (as we damaged a small part of the wings surface during the first try). Anyway, just wait for the coming video's and see for yourself!"