Ornithopters: Then and Now

We’ve all seen the failure videos at some point or another. The ridiculous contraptions recorded falling to pieces on silent, black and white film that are always included in montages of early 20th century culture and history with a lively big band tune playing in the background. You know, these types of things:

Flight has been something that has fascinated humans for millennia and logically the first ideas about recreating it came from nature. As early as the 4th Century BCE, there are legends involving ornithopters and wings made for people out of feathers. These stories eventually developed into actual designs like those of Leonardo DaVinci in the late 1400’s.

One of DaVinci's designs for a human-powered flight device

Da Vinci's ornithopter design.

As time progressed, some designs allowed for gliding, but there were no ornithopters created that allowed for actual, human-powered, flapping flight. That is, until recent history. In 1929, Alexander Lippisch’s invention flew about 250 meters, which, although some argued was merely an extended glide prompted by a tow launch, others claimed was true flapping flight which was only hindered by the fact that humans tire easily. From this point forward, the development of ornithopters proceeded at an increasingly faster rate, much like most of the rest of modern technology.

Today, there has most definitely been progress in ornithopter technology. There are many manned and unmanned ornithopters that work quite well today and are even developed for military use due to their similar appearance to birds and insects. They even take shape in the form of hobby’s for craftsmen and participants in the Science Olympics.

According to a source, ornithopters run on an engine which runs flapping wings that create thrust and lift for the craft. The wings are connected by a section at the center that is moved up and down to create the flapping motion. “The wings’ thrust is due primarily to a low-pressure region around the leading edge, which integrates to provide a force known as ‘leading-edge suction’.”

Sometimes imitating nature is not a good idea. As seen by the many different types of flying machines today, ornithopters are not the most reliable, or the most efficient. In fact, they are probably some of the worst in both categories, but without the ornithopter as an initial starting point to foyers in human flight, would we be flying today? The beginning interest in flight, so many years ago, may have lead no where without the failed attempts of many centuries and the need to keep trying again and again.