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What Is an Ornithopter?

Michael Anissimov
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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An ornithopter is a machine that flies like a bird, by flapping its wings. Most orithopters are about the size of small birds. Larger, man-carrying models have been attempted, but so far without proven success. Airplane-sized ornithopters have accelerated to takeoff speed on a runaway, but full takeoff has never really been successful. The ornithopter was popularized in Frank Herbert's Dune book series, as well as in the recent movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Bird-sized model ornithopters are cheaply available and used by hobbyists worldwide. The ornithopter was first designed by Leonardo da Vinci and drawn in some detail in his notebooks. In lieu of feathers, it used a membrane, showing that da Vinci had some basic understanding of the mechanism of flight. It was meant to be man-powered, but did not produce enough lift to take off. The da Vinci ornithopter was likely never built.

The closest we have come to a large ornithopter is a project run by the University of Toronto, called Project Ornithopter. The ornithopter resembles a propeller prop plane, but lacks a propeller and instead has flapping wings. As stated before, it has been accelerated at takeoff speed down a runaway, but has not yet attempted full flight.

The first ornithopter was possibly built in Germany by Karl Friederich Meerwein in 1781 as a proof-of-concept for heavier-than-air flight. It is claimed to have flown, but more likely glided after being launched from a high place. When the aerodynamic principles of flight were elucidated mathematically in 1799 by George Cayley, it became obvious that gliders were more convenient than ornithopters, so much research in this direction was abandoned.

Some interesting projects have used chemically powered artificial muscles to flap the wings of small ornithopters. One day, robots like these might be used as imitation birds for surveillance. A benefit of chemically powered ornithopters is that they do not necessarily use combustion for power and thereby spare the sky from pollution.

InfoBloom is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated InfoBloom contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon71804 — On Mar 20, 2010

i'm greatly interested in this project.

By anon28657 — On Mar 19, 2009

I would be interested in your idea.

By alexfly — On May 20, 2008

I have an idea for building a man power flying plane, who will be interested in talking about this project?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated InfoBloom contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology,...
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