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Icarus' Dream Finally a Reality
September 23, 2010 8:30 AM   Subscribe

The dream of Icarus has been one shared by many throughout history. University of Toronto Engineering students made history this week when they successfully flew a human-powered aircraft with flapping wings continuously. The flight of the Snowbird is beautiful to watch.

Todd Reichert, a PhD student at the U of T Institute for Aerospace Studies, flew the Snowbird. A representative from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the world body governing aeronautical records, was present to witness the event.
posted by smitt (42 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Ornithopter" is a wonderful word.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:40 AM on September 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


They sorta cheated by having a vehicle power the takeoff, but still very impressive.

I wonder how much further they could go with a serious athlete as the pilot. The Daedulus managed 71.5 miles over just under 4 hours, but it had an Olympic cyclist on board.
posted by jedicus at 8:41 AM on September 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wow. That's just pure awesome.

n' I want one for chissmass...
posted by Ahab at 8:44 AM on September 23, 2010


Watch for wormsign!
posted by kmz at 8:46 AM on September 23, 2010 [5 favorites]


Is this where I get to complain that the ornithopters in Lynch's Dune weren't?
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:53 AM on September 23, 2010


Grah, you people!
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:53 AM on September 23, 2010


That was amazing to see it get off the ground and then to see it "flap" was great. Now I want a turn!
posted by lilkeith07 at 8:53 AM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


In the 26th Annual Michigan Human Powered Vehicle Rally, Todd Reichert "...powered the University of Toronto's streamliner to the fastest speed ever in the 200-foot flying start sprints, 47.02 mph."

So I'm not sure where jedicus's cut-off for "serious athlete" is, but Todd Reichert is probably as high in the cycling world as you can get before you start dabbling in doping and pharmaceuticals.
posted by straw at 8:54 AM on September 23, 2010


Not bad for a zero casting cost 0/2 artifact!
posted by sciurus at 8:56 AM on September 23, 2010 [9 favorites]


Here's a link to a video of the flight only.
posted by smitt at 8:58 AM on September 23, 2010


They sorta cheated by having a vehicle power the takeoff, but still very impressive.

So did the Wright Brothers
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:14 AM on September 23, 2010


For a second I thought they actually named the damn thing Icarus and was about to call up University of Toronto grant dept. and see if I could get them to fund my Arachne-brand automatic sewing machines.
posted by griphus at 9:29 AM on September 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


How were they not ornithopters, Durn?
posted by wenestvedt at 9:38 AM on September 23, 2010


They sorta cheated

Nah, in the Middle Ages they just jumped off the roof of a monastery. Cars are just a safer way to achieve the same effect, as Eilmer of Malmesbury discovered. Giant sand dunes work also.

It's too bad they called it "Snowbird" and not something historic, it is a historic craft probably destined for the Smithsonian.
posted by stbalbach at 9:41 AM on September 23, 2010


I admit it; it brought tears to my eyes. Love you, Canada.
posted by emhutchinson at 9:41 AM on September 23, 2010


So I'm not sure where jedicus's cut-off for "serious athlete" is, but Todd Reichert is probably as high in the cycling world as you can get before you start dabbling in doping and pharmaceuticals.

I think that was just a local record. The world record for the 200m flying start is 82.33mph. Reichert's speed of 47.02mph was surpassed in 1976.

Obviously he's a great athlete (he powered an ornithopter for crying out loud), but I think he was just the most athletic person on the team, not a world-class athlete.
posted by jedicus at 9:43 AM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can't wait for the day when the skies are filled with these things.
posted by baxter_ilion at 9:52 AM on September 23, 2010


wenestvedt: how were these not ornithopters?

or·ni·thop·ter noun \ˈȯr-nə-ˌthäp-tər\
: an aircraft designed to derive its chief support and propulsion from flapping wings
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:56 AM on September 23, 2010


They sorta cheated by having a vehicle power the takeoff, but still very impressive.

Yeah, I was watching it and was ready to switch it off until 1:45:"Big whoop, so they built an especially large glider. I don't see why I am suppo-... oh... oh, wow!"
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:56 AM on September 23, 2010


I don't understand the difference between this thing and the Daedalus... why if MIT went 70+ miles is this historic?
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 10:08 AM on September 23, 2010


I don't understand the difference between this thing and the Daedalus... why if MIT went 70+ miles is this historic?

The Daedulus had a propeller and fixed wings. The Snowbird derives its propulsion from flapping wings, like a bird.
posted by jedicus at 10:17 AM on September 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


I get it now, thanks
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 10:20 AM on September 23, 2010


This is so cool. Hopefully this doesn't get killed like the Avro Arrow did.
posted by sandraregina at 10:26 AM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Next up: a car powered by poutine and bags of milk.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 11:01 AM on September 23, 2010


Hell no. We need those to power ourselves. Its what Canadians run on.
posted by sandraregina at 11:14 AM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


This could only happen in Toronto.
posted by tangerine at 11:17 AM on September 23, 2010


It's cheating because you still can't use this to flap your way to work in the morning. If you need a car it's not useful to us.

And the grouch that lives in the trash can out back comments: "What is it with the music and editing? Do we really need a quote from Arthur C. Clarke at the beginning and the dramatic 'Impossible is nothing' cart at the end, here? Why not just show us the flight instead of tryin' to jazz it up with easy listen'?"

Ah, grouches.
posted by JHarris at 11:57 AM on September 23, 2010


And now that I'm able to watch the video: that was beautiful. Unexpectedly lovely movement.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 2:44 PM on September 23, 2010


They sorta cheated by having a vehicle power the takeoff

May I beg the court for a headwind?
posted by norm at 2:49 PM on September 23, 2010


I guess my question is, how far would it had glided (once airborn via automobile power) had the wings not flapped???

The flapping was a beautiful thing, but do we know that it made a difference?
posted by HuronBob at 3:54 PM on September 23, 2010


It's good, bit it's not Stryper.

Thanks God. Or, you know... whoever.
posted by Decani at 5:09 PM on September 23, 2010


Oh fuck. I posted in entirely the wrong thread. I feel so cheap. Please ignore my last comment.
posted by Decani at 5:10 PM on September 23, 2010


Brief history of manned ornithopters.
posted by Humanzee at 5:17 PM on September 23, 2010


I suspect it would have glided farther if the wings just stayed fixed instead of flapping. The flapping just seems to have introduced more drag and made the plane bob up and down, reducing lift since there was significant downward motion.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:26 PM on September 23, 2010


The last time I heard music like that . . . let's just say it wasn't an ornithopter flapping away on the screen.

I'm sorry.

posted by Mid at 7:11 PM on September 23, 2010


I suspect it would have glided farther if the wings just stayed fixed instead of flapping.

Oh yeah? Well I suspect the opposite.

One can reasonably assume that they would not be calling this a record ornithopter flight if all they had done was make a sub-optimal glider. But if you want, you can poke around their website and find the Flight Record Claim (.pdf), which details the claim a bit more. In particular, they note that both airspeed and elevation were greater at the finish line than at the starting line, which presumably are the requirements for it to be called sustained flight. If the wings hadn't flapped, it might perhaps have gone further, but it would have definitely lost either altitude or airspeed or both, meaning it wouldn't be flying.

Actually there is a really neat graph on the last page, pg. 13, which plots elevation, airspeed, and total energy over time, showing the tow release, and beginning and end of sustained flight. Airspeed has a periodic component due to the flapping motion (which is achieved via a leg press, by the way). What's intriguing though is that the moving average for airspeed, if you were to smooth out the jerkiness, appears to show a slight declining trend during what they are calling "flight". The "finish line" seems to have been chosen to coincide with the peak of one of the speed bursts, while the start line coincides with a trough right before the first burst. Thus the claim that airspeed was maintained seems to be slightly fishy, at least over the interval they chose. But maybe this is kosher in the world of flight records, who knows. Altitude was definitely maintained throughout, there is no question of that. Looking a little bit closer there is definitely sustained airspeed near the beginning and end of the claimed flight, but a little bit of turbulence or something near the middle which seems to have caused the loss.

In any case, screw the haters, it flew.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:11 PM on September 23, 2010


The graph doesn't support their conclusions. An object that loses altitude and airspeed isn't flying, it's falling.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:38 AM on September 24, 2010


It didn't lose altitude though. There was a slight decline in height above the ground but only because the ground rose. Actual elevation increased slightly. And it didn't technically lose airspeed either -- airspeed was greater at the end than at the beginning. Certainly from 30-35s and 42-53s there was unambiguously no decline in average airspeed.

I'm wondering if the rolling average thing even matters. Imagine a glider that had a booster engine; we let it go, airspeed and altitude decline, and then suddenly shoot back higher than they were, before declining again. Did it fly? I think according to the definition of flight that they are using, which seems to be only that airspeed and altitude increase over the length of the course, that it did.
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:28 AM on September 24, 2010


Ah, I see. The plane wasn't falling towards the earth, the earth was rising towards the plane. Do you understand how utterly ridiculous that argument is? You remind me of a famous story about Norbert Weiner. He was driving along the highway and was lost in thought, and drove off the road and hit a telephone pole. The highway patrol asked him what happened. He said, "the telephone poles were moving past my car in an orderly fashion, and then suddenly, they swerved!"

I think you're missing a major problem here. This plane could never fly totally under its own power. It has no way to get off the ground under its own power, it can't get enough speed to exceed its stall speed, let alone ascend. And even with a tow launch, it can't achieve continuously sustained flight. One human does not have enough power to keep the plane from slowing down, no matter how hard he works. The plane will slow continuously from its launch speed until it stalls.

The plane is falling. At best, it's a glider. But even a tow-launch glider is falling, albeit slowly. It cannot overcome the force of gravity.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:24 AM on September 25, 2010


Ah, I see. The plane wasn't falling towards the earth, the earth was rising towards the plane. Do you understand how utterly ridiculous that argument is?

No, it sounds perfectly sensible. Do you say that a normal airplane is falling towards the earth when it flies over a mountain? No, the ground is rising up towards the plane. The same thing happened here, they were flying uphill. So yes, the plane was getting higher, in absolute terms (say, compared to sea level). It just was closer to the ground because it wasn't gaining altitude faster than the slope of the ground was causing the ground level to increase in altitude above sea level.

I guess we'll just have to wait and see what the FAI thinks about it, but most people seem to be convinced that this will in fact set the record.
posted by antifuse at 5:59 AM on September 27, 2010


There's one key feature of birds wings this lacks: the rotation of feathers which function as propellers. Think of the exhaust vent on an engine piston for a moment. On the downstroke, the feathers are closed, allowing the bird to push itself forward and up. The feathers then twist a bit to reduce drag on the upstroke.

I recall seeing this on Mr. Wizard 25 years ago, the only thing I can find today is this page:

How does a bird develop thrust? Actually, the wings function as propellers. During the downwards wing beat the primary wing feathers stand out almost at right angles to the rest of the wing and to the line of flight. The primary feathers are twisted for only a split second, but their twisting is what gives the propeller motion. In an airplane propeller, rotation is around a single point. In a bird wing which oscillates up and down, the feathers must continually change position to produce the thrust. In slow flight only the tips of the wings act as propellers; in fast flight or on takeoff, the entire outer wing may go through the motion (you can hear pigeons slap wings together on takeoff). In leisurely flight the wingtip movement is more vertical. The secondary feathers on the inner part of the wing, attached to the ulna, provide lift.


The OP is pretty nice to watch, but for this thing to actually keep its speed up it would have to 1. change the angle of attack like a helicopter rotor does and 2. use a series of flaps or valves to reduce drag on the upstroke.

Looking at the PDF graph it appears that initial airspeed was gained from the car, and that any apparent increase in speed was gained through a loss in altitude, as with any glider. The fact that the altitude graph shows increase in speed and altitude is suspect is because of the nature of the aircraft, and that while the passenger compartment with the instruments was moving up while the wings were moving down and losing altitude.
posted by daHIFI at 8:42 AM on September 27, 2010


Last paragraph should something like "The fact that the altitude graph shows an increase in speed and altitude is because while the passenger compartment with the instruments was moving up, the wings were moving down and trading altitude for speed."

Diving increases speed, climbing reduces it.
posted by daHIFI at 8:47 AM on September 27, 2010


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