back to article World's first pedal-powered ornithopter takes flight in Canada

Canadian enthusiasts have finally achieved a feat that has eluded humanity's finest engineers since the time of Leonardo da Vinci - to build a machine, powered by a human pilot's muscles, which flies by flapping its wings: an ornithopter. The "Snowbird" man-powered ornithopter achieved its history-making flight last month …


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  1. The BigYin


    "...covered a distance of 145 metres at an average speed of 25.6 kilometres per hour...weighs just 94lb despite having a 105-foot wingspan..."

    Please, pick one measuring system and stick with it (i.e. keep to metric).

    Or am I just getting in a flap over nothing? (guffaw)

    1. No, I will not fix your computer

      Yea! that's right...

      ....stop this nonsense straight away or we'll be buying things in grammes and driving distances in miles.... oh wait....

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        RE: Yea! that's right

        ...and buying our petrol by the Litre and measuring usage by the Gallon.

        1. Blain Hamon
          Dead Vulture

          Metric? Standard? Bah! We're on El Reg!

          I won't have any less than noting that it flew a full Brontosaurus, going a full 3 Brontosauruses (Brontosaurii?) a minute, weighing 10.15 Jubs despite having nearly a 3.5 double-decker bus wingspan!

          Much thanks to for ensuring that the proper measures can be expressed!

    2. Ball boy Silver badge

      While we're on the subject

      "Its pilot powers the flapping wings by pedalling like a cyclist, one of the most efficient ways to generate energy using the human body."

      The more remarkable thing about this story is that our lad with the PhD has done what no-one's been able to do before: he's *generated* energy!

      Or perhaps you meant to say

      " of the most efficient ways to convert energy...."

      Nice story, all the same. When I fly from LHR I have to walk so damn far to board the plane, I'm in half a mind to invest in this and pedal myself over to Germany ;-)

    3. skellious

      no, not metric!

      Ok, so perhaps canadian readers (and probably most of the world) would prefer metric but some of us live in the time warp that is the United Kingdom where we really couldnt decide to either totally reject (like the americans) or totally adopt (like most of the world) the metric system, and instead picked the worst parts of both (presumably out of a hat of some kind) and cobbled them together before tea time.

      hence... buying alcohol in pints, measuring distance in miles, people in ft and stone, consumption in MPG, milk by the pint (but marked as a rediculous amount of litres (2.272L or some such for 4 pints) and eggs by the dozen or half-dozen.


      buying pertrol in litres, measuring buildings, construction materials and so on in metres, buying litre bottles of squash and so on. temperature in C though only half the country understands it (as compared to F which only the OTHER half of the country understands...)

      What a messed up place!

  2. Andy 6

    thats not flying !

    so it gets towed in to the air, and glides for a bit while its wings flap.. . .

    thats not flying.

    if thats flying, then everyone who ever fell from a height sufficient enough that they flapped their arms on the way down were also flying.

    1. No, I will not fix your computer

      that's falling with style?

      To infinity and beyond!!!!

      1. No, I will not fix your computer

        I can't believe it....

        Down voting a Buzz Lightyear quote....

        ....some people have no sense of humour.


    2. rickrayn

      Being towed into the air

      I am proud of the fact that this took place in Canada as a proud Canadian. However I do question whether real flight took place as the ornithopter had to be towed so as to get off of the ground. It seemed that the wings only flapped a few times and then the device glided back to earth hardly what I would call flight.

      1. Matt Bryant Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        RE: Being towed into the air

        I'd say hold your heads up high, moose-lovers, it's just as valid as the Wright brother's sham at Kittyhawk. After all, the Wright brothers used a catapult to provide the launch of their Wright Flyer, into a 20mph headwind, and it glided the complete distance of their so-called first powered, heavier-than-air flight, and didn't display true powered flight (maintaining or increasing altitude by the power of the engine alone) until the next version (Flyer II) over a year later. If the Yanks can claim the Wright brothers as a first then I'm quite happy to accept a bit of wing wobbling as an ornithopter first.

    3. Cynical Observer

      A Title

      There is an art, or, rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.

      - Douglas Adams

  3. Cornholio

    The bit that impresses me...

    "shedding over 18lb of weight over 4 weeks"

    Never mind the pedal-powered ornithopter. I want to know how I can lose 18lb of pies and beer from my midriff in so little time.

    1. Ralph B
      Thumb Down

      You mean, apart from the obvious?

      Just stop scoffing pies and beer for 4 weeks and you'll probably be 18lb lighter.

      You lardy git.

    2. James Hughes 1

      The clue is in your post

      Stop eating pies and drinking beer.

      Oh, and do some exercise.

    3. Steve 13
      Thumb Up


      Stop eating pies and hit the gym for 6 hours a day.

    4. wibbilus maximus


      Just go on a big pie and beer binge and you can lose £18 in a night

      Oh, weight........(sorry had to be said!)

    5. Charles Manning

      Fall down a lift shaft

      That will shed all your weight.

      Shedding mass is quite another matter

  4. Andrew Oakley
    Thumb Down

    Does pedaling/flapping add anything that gliding/car-tow does not?

    As the video shows, the craft is launched by a tow-rope from an automobile. It fails to gain any significant height in the video.

    I am really not convinced that the pedalling/flapping wings is really adding much here.

    I suspect that a control experiment, of a rigid glider pulled by a car tow-rope, would achieve much the same result.

    1. Arclight


      But birds don't fly by flapping alone, they use their legs to launch themselves.

      And you could use the same arguement with the Wright brothers first flight. They used a wieght/pulley system to launch the Flyer..

      The test would be to launch the ornithopter twice, first time flapping, second time gliding, and see how far they go.

      1. ratfox

        Bird legs

        First, I am not sure how much power bird legs really have... Second, it is their own legs. If they do the same thing with the guy pedaling to turn the wheels instead of being towed, I will have no more objections.

    2. Anton Ivanov

      yes and no

      1. It is clearly flying on ground effect. So not gaining altitude is not surprising

      2. Even a glider cannot stay horisontal at the same altitude for that long after towed takeoff.

      I would do a double positive control here instead of negative. Just hook up a small lawnmower motor to the existing bicycle style gears and crank it up on a few flights. The difference between a petrol motor and a human is that petrol motor can maintain max power output level for 5-10 mins, not sub-40 seconds. If the bird flies at the same power level as human, then it really flew.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down


    Whilst I can understand the car to get the plane in the air in the first place as it has no means of providing thrust, I don't see it so much as flying as gliding. Did the students compare the flight with flapping with a flight where they just glided. I suspect that there might not be much difference between the two. In other words, the flapping doesn't add much. Definitely not height.

  6. I Like Heckling Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Listen to the naysayers

    I think this is brilliant... another first for the history books and another one of Da Vincis ideas brought to life.

    The tow cable from the car is released and the flapping begins, the vehicle shows no signs of slowing down nor of falling. Gliding loses height with forward momentum and there is not enough lift at ground level to provide anything. To maintain the same height at such a speed at that low a level.. lift *IS* being generated.

    This is a proof of concept vehicle, and it's done it's job. Expect the design to be improved upon in the years to come.

    1. Captain Save-a-ho

      Re: Listen to the naysayers

      Such a monumental achievement. I'm sure Davinci would be proud, until he saw the fucking car pulling the thing to get it going.

      Epic fail.

    2. stu 4


      1 - it would not 'slow down'. whether he flapped or not, it would maintain the same airspeed.

      2 - the glide ratio of wing section like that will be massive (1:70+ - better than the best gliders). i.e. it can travel 70m for ever 1m lost.

      Or to put it another way - it started off 2m from the ground, and GLIDED 140m before landing on the ground.

      I agree, it seems likely that the flapping is adding nothing whatsoever.

      stu (pilot)

  7. Jacqui

    to get the design right

    all we need is an insane AI.

  8. Anonymous Coward

    Flying vs gliding

    Presumably the difference is that this thing can *sustain* flight, i.e. keep going until its pilot gets tired, which, I believe was the limiting factor in this flight.

    Put Lance Armstrong and a bottle of Stanozolol in the thing and it could for for a mega-linguini or two.

  9. Gary F
    Thumb Down

    It was gliding!

    I'd have been impressed if it had gained altitude by itself once released from its tow.

    When birds jump to help take off that's only a small amount of thrust, the bulk of it comes from their wings - the first flap pushing air downwards, especially with the larger birds.

    This Canadian contraption doesn't have the power or range of movement necessary to mimic what birds wings achieve to gain altitude.

    It's a good demo of light weight engineering though.

  10. Lottie

    For schools

    Will they need to have a new section in the cycling proficiency tests now? Indicate, left, check for other traffic and enter a holding pattern.

    Kissing behind the flier sheds.

    Yes, I think this is a cool invention.

  11. Jolyon

    Gliding ̿ ̿ ̿̿'̿̿\̵͇̿̿\=(•̪●)=/̵͇̿̿/'̿̿ ̿ ̿ ̿ Flying

    I suppose it is just possible that after all this time researching in the field they will be slapping themselves on the forehead about having neglected to consider the difference between flying and gliding.

    In which case the commentards of El Reg can expect a hearty thank you for stopping them before they got too far down futility street with this project.

    1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      Hold on

      It's not exactly as if anyone here is disputing the quality of the engineering that went into this thing - It's a beautiful piece of work whatever it does. But, since it's not unknown for engineers, or their PR teams to claim to have achieved something they merely aimed for so, I think some degree of skepticism is healthy here. Save your scorn for people holding forth on the finer points of string theory.

  12. Steve Crook


    It got a tow to get it off the ground. I'd be interested to know how far it would have gone if the wings didn't flap, at least then I'd have some idea of the amount of lift being generated.

    That said, from an engineering pov, it's impressive, the flapping motion must have been incredibly difficult to achieve.

  13. SMK8

    HPO -- ON gliding and sustaining.

    This is not a Bicycle-pedal flapping machine, but uses a Rowing-Machine-similar method of flapping the Wings.

    Todd and University Of Toronto Students Aerospace/Mechanical as well as students from France, and Holland participated in the construction of the Ornithopter and flew it in many trials.

    The video does not illustrate what the FAI official confirmed in the record setting flight:

    For 19.5 seconds, and a distance of 145 Meters; the Ornithopter Sustained and succeeded in maintaining Human-Powered Flight.

    Even though the initial takeoff to 5-6 Meters of altitude under tow is used to get the Ornithopter to working (and Safe) altitude. When the Powered portion of flight occurred, the Ornithopter gained altitiude from its initial entry, and sustained altitude (and sustained flight) and airspeed, for the determined period, -- After it was released from tow.

    Most Gliders are Auto-Towed, Winch -towed, or Aero-Towed to operational Altitude for Launch.

    Most Gliders with "Sustain" engines cannot takeoff with the engine in the Glider.

    The Ornithopter is a Sustain-type human-powered aircraft.

    - Great Lakes Gliding - Member

  14. Charlie van Becelaere
    Paris Hilton

    Let's just

    stick a motor in it and see how long it can fly ... or better still, let's take it up and Release it In Space!

    PARIS for obvious reasons.

  15. Maty

    How about ...

    Telling us details such as the amount of thrust generated by the flapping? It's not like the Reg doesn't do technical stuff sometimes.

  16. David Leigh 1

    What a load of nonsense

    I'm sure that if I threw myself out of a window, I would make a small amount of forward progress (before crashing painfully to the ground), but I couldn't claim it to be 'man-powered flight'.

    All that happened here was a flappy-winged glider was towed into the air where it stayed for a few seconds, then landed. If they had used a fixed-wing glider, exactly the same result would have been achieved.

  17. Mike 102

    As a child...

    As a child I jumped off a wall (or was pushed by a brother I don't remember the specifics) I flapped my arms as if to fly... I'm sure it took my slightly further forwards than if I hadn't flapped my arms (granted not much further)...

    Can I retrospectively claim the first ornithopter record...

    What a load of cobblers.... It's a well designed ultra light glider with flappy wings...

  18. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up


    No other word to describe 2 50' human powered flapping wings. True it didn't rise much and needed a towed start but this is V0.8 at *best*.

    Is it practical? Will your grand children be hopping on one for their vacation, or will one of the them be carrying bulk cargoes so cheaply than they can compete with ships across continents? Who knows.

    However cracking a problem that has eluded some of the finest minds for nearly 6 centuries indicates *deep* understanding of the problem and the solution spaces.

    I think his PhD is pretty much in the bag.

    Looking forward to V1.0.

  19. Anonymous Coward


    @ all the armchair experts who know more about sustained flight than the aviation scientists who confirmed the flight.

    1. Stu who?

      Powered flight? Sh**e!

      What mince you speak. The first real human powered flight was required to fly a figure 8 with a pole at each end of several metres to be "confirmed". (Gossamer Albatross for your search engine). The Canadian scientists who confirmed this flight should have stuck to claiming the Canada Arm was a major contribution to the Shuttle program.

  20. Anonymous Coward

    I think not

    If they really had a claim, don't you think it would have occurred to them to film the flight from the side from a chase vehicle so we could more easily see any height gain. The choice of camera angle and distance is pitiful, all that work and planning and they couldn't rustle up a second car on the day?

  21. C. P. Cosgrove

    I don't know . . .

    I don't know if it was flying or gliding, and it's not an argument I want to get into, BUT - it looks gorgeous, and it is a really fine bit of light weight engineering.

    I used to make balsa wood flying models - but a 105 feet ( oops, sorry, 32 metre ) wingspan ? That was a little ( 30 metres ) beyond my wildest ambitions !

    Chris Cosgrove

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    look at the record video

    in this one he maintains height, until he stops flapping and then it glides down to earth-

    awesome !

  23. Anonymous Coward

    generate vs. convert

    Ball Boy, give us an example of something that generates energy.

  24. Graham Bartlett

    Glider only

    Teensy, teensy bit of wiggling on the wingtips. Yeah, that's going to do something. Not.

    It may well be the first glider where the pilot can contribute a little extra energy by flapping the wings. Why is the first? Answer: because simple mathematics shows you get sod all return for the energy you put in, compared to using a propellor.

    I doubt there's a record time for pogo-sticking from Land's End to John o'Groats either - and even if someone did manage to do it, this doesn't magically turn the pogo-stick into a practical form of transport.

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