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A Brief History of Human Powered Aviation and Ornithopters

Human-Powered Aviation

It is no surprise that humanity’s first attempts at flight were in the form of birdlike, human-powered ornithopters. The great artist and engineer Leonardo Da Vinci is often credited as the first to propose a reasonable flying machine in 1490: a giant bat-shaped craft that uses both the pilot’s arms and legs to power the wings. Though the aircraft was never built, and we now know that it would not have flown, it was a remarkable achievement considering the knowledge of the day. At the turn of the 20th century, focus shifted both in the method of thrust production, from flapping wings to the propeller, and the method of power generation, from the human body to the internal combustion engine. With the aerodynamic problem greatly simplified, the impossibility of human flight was disproved by the Wright brother’s flight in 1903 and the stage was set for the boom of aircraft developments in the decades to come. Though work on human-powered aircraft was still carried on from time to time by several groups in various countries, it would be three-quarters of a century before anyone mastered the art of human-powered flight.

Leonardo Da Vinci's conceptual design for a flapping-wing flying machine.

The first truly successful HPA came in 1977 when Paul MacCready’s Gossamer Condor flew a one-mile figure-of-eight course in 7 ½ minutes to capture the £50,000 Kremer Prize. What followed was breakneck development in the field, and a mere two years later the Gossamer Albatross flew 36 km across the English Channel, earning the team the second Kremer Prize. To date, the greatest HPA accomplishment was by M.I.T.’s Daedalus, which in 1988 flew 119 km from Crete to Santorini, an incredible feat worthy of the aircraft’s mythological name. These and many other HPA projects have pioneered methods of lightweight composite construction, power transmission, and multi-disciplinary aero-structural optimization, much of which has been published and made available to those eager to pursue the field.

For a more complete history of human-powered aircraft:
Human Powered Flying

Paul MacCready's Albatross HPA in flight at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center.

MIT's Daedalus HPA in flight at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center.

Ornithopters and Flapping-Wing Flight

The problem of flapping-wing flight has been tackled by countless engineers and craftsmen, but until recently only moderate success had been achieved. The Subsonic Aerodynamics laboratory under Professor James DeLaurier at the University of Toronto has been a prolific contemporary contributor to the body of knowledge concerning flapping-wing flight, with successes in remote-controlled ornithopters, flapping-wing micro air vehicles, and even a full-scale human-piloted engine powered ornithopter. In 1991 the Professor DeLaurier and UTIAS were awarded the “Diplôme d’Honneur” by the FAI for having flown the world’s first engine-powered remotely-piloted ornithopter. Theoretical and experimental research intensified in subsequent years, culminating in the successful flight of a full-scale piloted ornithopter on July 8th, 2006. A patented wing-twisting mechanism and extensive research in aeroelastic tailoring has kept the University of Toronto at the forefront of ornithopter innovation for the last 20 years.

For a more complete history of ornithoper technology:
Project Ornithopter
The Ornithopter Zone

The University of Toronto's engine-powered ornithopter, "Big Flapper", during dawn flight testing at Downsview airport, Toronto (Photo courtesy of Michael J. Lazich).