“Snowbird” claims record for sustained flight of a human-powered ornithopter


September 22, 2010

The Snowbird on its record-breaking flight

The Snowbird on its record-breaking flight

Image Gallery (11 images)

Ornithopters, aircraft that fly by flapping their wings, are a staple at birdman rallies the world over, inevitably resulting in the pilots of such craft plunging headlong into the drink. Now, more than 500 years after Leonardo da Vinci sketched the first human-powered ornithopter in 1485, a team from the University of Toronto have succeeded where so many before them have failed and made aviation history by achieving a world record for sustained flight in a human-powered aircraft with flapping wings.

The record-breaking flight of the craft, called the “Snowbird”, took place on August 2 at the Great Lakes Gliding Club in Tottenham, Ontario. On it the Snowbird managed to sustain both altitude and airspeed for 19.3 seconds, covering a distance of 145 meters (475.7 feet) at an average speed of 25.6 km/h (15.9 mph). That might not sound overly impressive, but it was enough to set a world record for such a craft that is expected to be confirmed next month.

The Snowbird itself weighs just 94 lbs. (42.6 kg) and has a wingspan of 32 meters (105 feet). Although its wingspan is comparable to that of a Boeing 737, the Snowbird development team says its craft weighs less than all of the pillows on board that aircraft. It was piloted and powered by Todd Reichert, an Engineering PhD candidate at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) who lost 18 lbs. (8 kg) of body weight this past summer to facilitate flying the aircraft.

The Snowbird development team comprised 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.

The team undertook the challenge to learn to design and build lightweight 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,” Reichert added.

In 1929, a man-powered ornithopter designed by Alexander Lippisch apparently flew a distance of 820 to 984 feet (250 to 300 m), but because a tow launch was used some have questioned whether the craft was capable of sustained flight. In April 2006, Yves Rousseau succeeded in flying a human-muscle-powered ornithopter a distance of 210 feet (64 m) on his 212th attempt, which was 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.

Professor DeLaurier also had success with an engine-powered ornithopter which we first looked at back in 2004. In July 2006, Professor DeLaurier's machine, the UTIAS Ornithopter No.1 made a jet-assisted takeoff and 14-second flight. According to DeLaurier, the jet was necessary for sustained flight, but the flapping wings did most of the work.

The Snowbird’s record-breaking flight also involved the craft initially being towed by a car until lift was achieved and was 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.

HPO MVI 0043 from U of T Engineering on Vimeo.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

So beautiful!!


Sorry but how does this significantly improve on the 1929 Alexander Lippisch flight? If that was questionable for the towed launch then so, surely, is this?


\"Come fly with me \" takes on a totally new meaning after watching this incredible flight, thanks


Wonderful though it is, a simple glider does the same thing with a tow launch, but does not need flapping wings. Unfortunately, a man powered ornithopter will never take off un-assisted. It is amazing how much effort must have gone into this project. I suppose it is just the challenge that spurs them on.


To have proof of the human power providing enough thrust to sustain lift, the flight profile must remain above what the plane would do starting from the same tow release height and speed.

If it simply maintains the same profile it would just gliding, then it\'s just a glider with wibbly wings. If the profile falls below pure gliding, then the wing flapping would be reducing lift.

What would be far easier to have repeatable launch heights and speeds would be to build a weight driven catapult launch tower like the Wright Brothers used in their later designs in order to be able to take off in a shorter distance.

If the tower would have to be too tall to boost this ornithopter to flight speed without tearing it apart, then a powered winch could be used.

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sport fishing


It seems like it\'s gliding... In fact as far I can see from the vid the flapping seems to reduce the lift. It looks like it\'s just a glider with flappy wings... Getting the wings to generate enough thrust from flapping is not an easy task. Looks can be deceiving...

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