The wings on this plane go up and down

Leonardo da Vinci sketched out birdlike human flight. A group of Canadian researchers is now ready for a real-world test. Photos: Flapping like a mallard

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
Come spring, a group of Canadian researchers will try to realize an age-old dream advanced by both science and mythology: to fly like a bird.

With help from his graduate students, James DeLaurier, a professor at the University of Toronto's Institute for Aerospace Studies, has created an ornithopter--a full-size plane designed to get off the ground when its wings flap. Pilot Jack Sanderson will attempt to fly the contraption a few thousand feet next April.

If it succeeds, the flight will fulfill a dream that has foiled Icarus, Leonardo da Vinci and other, more modern aviation pioneers--that is, to achieve flight by means of undulating wings. In standard planes, an engine pushes the plane forward, and the lift is generated under a fixed wing. By contrast, the ornithopter is like a bird: The engine causes the wings to beat, which, in turn, creates the conditions for a lift.

"We are doing it to try to achieve humanity's oldest dream of flight, which hasn't been realized," DeLaurier said. "You might say we are trying for the beauty of it."

The flight will also represent the culmination of a decades-long drive for the aviation engineer, who began his career working on the Apollo project at NASA's Ames Laboratory in Mountain View, Calif.

DeLaurier made balsa wood ornithopter models as a kid and tinkered with the idea of making bigger ones through the 1970s and 1980s. In 1991, DeLaurier created a radio-controlled, motorized ornithopter that achieved sustained flight. The Federation Aeronautique International (FAI) recognized it as the first flight of a motorized ornithopter. Since then, others have achieved similar flights.

The machine to be tested in the coming trials differs in key ways. The ornithopter from the 1991 flight was about a fourth the size of a regular plane and flew by remote control. The ornithopter in the coming flight can accommodate a human, who will sit inside and fly it.

DeLaurier has been working on the machine since 1996. "We got it to go over 50mph down the runway, and we managed a few short hops," he said.

Mechanical problems, however, prevented the machine from taking flight. On one occasion, the chain fell off. Another time, a wing tip disintegrated and had to be replaced with Kevlar and carbon fiber. During yet another trial, hardened steel bolts fractured due to fatigue.

"If we were funded by NASA, we'd be off the ground by now," DeLaurier said.

Unlike Richard Branson and some of the backers of SpaceShipOne, the rocket that recently made an unprecedented

flight out of the atmosphere, DeLaurier is not dreaming of changing the future of commercial aviation. For one thing, the wings beat about once a second, so the flight isn't exactly first-class.

"It feels like going over a speed bump every second. It is a little like being on a vibra-bed," DeLaurier said. "I don't think the ornithopter will have any practical advantages for commercial vehicles."

Nonetheless, microplanes with flapping wings could prove to be of interest to the military, because such a vehicle can achieve lift quickly. Ornithopter drones can also hover. SRI International and the University of Toronto a few years ago created a hovering plane called the Mentor for a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project.

The plane could also be a hit at air shows. DeLaurier is hoping to showcase the machine at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, to commemorate 500 years of ideas spawned by da Vinci.

The test will take place on a 5,000-foot airstrip owned by Bombardier in Downsview, Ontario. Transport Canada, the government agency that regulates flight in the country, has given the group permission to take off, fly over and land on the airstrip. The aircraft will not be permitted to turn around. While it is unclear whether the FAI will accept a straight shot over such a short "sustained flight," DeLaurier said it is good enough for him. It's pretty much what the Wright Brothers did.

The plane is ready to fly now, but the group plans to wait until the climate is right. "It is good to go, but the weather isn't," DeLaurier said. "It is one of the facts of life in Canada."