Float: ultralight rubber-band-powered duration model planes

Float Documentary Trailer from Phil Kibbe on Vimeo.

These beautiful dragonfly-like model planes can float for up to half an hour under the power of one single-wound rubber band. Check out the trailer for Float posted by Phil Kibbe. Amazing craftsmanship and techniques! Video link. (via devour.com)


  1. Back in the 70s I read a YA novel about a boy who took up this hobby. It sounded fascinating. It’s great to see boys young and old still enjoying it.

  2. Are the materials set by a governing body, or is wood really the best thing to make these out of? I would have thought that some sort of synthetic material would have been invented by now that had a better strength-to-weight ratio, but maybe not?

  3. For most of these aircraft there are minimum weights for the entire aircraft, maximum span, maximum motor weight, and sometimes a maximum area.

    Sometimes the motor-stick must be solid, sometimes there is a minimum fuselage cross-section area.

    Paul MacReady of Gossamer Condor/Albatross fame cut his teeth on these. It explains much of the design.

    Wood, BTW, can a better strength-to-weight ratio than steel. The landing pads of the Apollo lunar modules were mostly balsa wood.

  4. Back the late 80’s I had a short lived subscription to Flying Models magazine (which apparently is still around). That’s where I kind of got into stuff like this. The several planes that I have built have been no where near as lite as these, but all the same principles are applied.

    I did learn a thing or two about torque vs. power when switching up from the standard 1/16 rubber band on a Peck Polymers Stringless Wonder to a 3/16 band. It went from having a cruising speed of a couple mph to a near vertical takeoff at close to 10 mph. It was a hoot. Ah, youth and free time.

    If you have the patience and time it really is something that can be stress relieving. (That is until you break something.)

  5. Chip, synthetics, carbon fibers, etc? are too heavy. these things weigh ~ 3 or 4 postage stamps weight. the “serious” guys make their own film covering instead of buying it.

    I’ve been building stick and tissue “outdoor” planes since I was 12 with my dad. 34 years and countless planes later? I have tried and tried, but not been able to make an indoor job that actually flies. it takes incredible skill, talent, and patience.

    you can find out more about the hobby here: http://www.indoorduration.com/

    you can buy kits and books and materials here:

    they are truly beautiful to watch fly

  6. They often turn off any heating/AC if possible as well because thermal gradients are enough to cause air currents. Huge windows on a sunny day can be bad. One competition is held in an underground salt mine in Europe because of its size and stable temperature. No kidding. People walking can also cause air currents than can destabilize a plane, so you have to move slowly.

    Wood (balsa) is an amazing material in terms of strength-to-weight. Mylar film is used for the wings and props. I believe thin tungsten wire is used for bearings and other bits. Another key is geometry. A good airplane is an “aerostructure.” In the trailer they show the building of a body tube out of paper or some fiber/wood-based material using a mandrel. The tubes can be tapered to use less material at one end. The result is a rigid, aerodynamic fuselage that is lighter than a beam fuselage of equivalent stiffness.

    The Science Olympiad had an event for many years where students built planes like these. Actual engineering, tinkering, and some understanding of aerodynamics was needed and acquired. Apparently this was too much to ask (of the teachers) and the event is off the schedule this year. This unfortunate, as so much of the rest of the Science Olympiad consists of taking tests and building things out of marshmallows and toothpicks.

    Great video by the way! I can’t wait to see the documentary.

  7. Wonderful craft, wonderful treatment of ‘Do you realise?’, wonderful video.

    Also “Its about 54 proof. Cheers.”


  8. I remember seeing these on “Nova” or some other PBS show when I was a wee lad. One of them was a complex, quad-winged, ornithopter-like contraption that soared gently through the arena’s airspace like an articulated soap bubble. Wonderful to see them again.

  9. My eighth graders had a blast making tumblewing gliders out of phone book pages this year. They are going to love this video. Thanks Andrea.

  10. Our college went a bit overboard when it came to basketball games. One of the things to look forward to were the rubber band planes at halftime. Some would stay up the entire time. Not a sanctioned event, just something people would do. Several at a time, cruising around over the court, cheerleaders, etc.

  11. To those wondering, the music at the end is Vitamin String Quartet’s cover of “Do You Realize??” by The Flaming Lips.

  12. Absolutely lovely. What are the balloons for? Do they waft them gently under a failing plane? Slide them between two planes that seem ready to collide?

    I am reminded of one of my father’s favorite sayings, “There’s a whole ‘nother subculture out there.” Everywhere I go, I find otaku of all stripes, and it is a marvelous testament to the variety of humanity.

  13. Godfree: I think I read the same YA story. I remember a bit where the kids were making thin films for wing coverings by floating chemicals on the surface of a filled bathtub? I must have read that story around 1968.

  14. Apparently the record is more like 40 minutes, which is an astonishing thought. All that flying from so little twisted rubber. I’ve never done much free-flight as I got hooked on radio control as a teenager, back in the days when that was probably a more expensive hobby than class 1 drugs.

    At the other end of the possibilities of rubber power, look up the ‘Wakefield’ class. Sort of the V8 of rubber power. Oh, the noise!

  15. I had a friend who was into this about 20 years ago. He would fly at meets in the Low Library of Columbia University (a domed bullding which is the center of the campus.

    The balloons (at least at Low) were to gently dislodge planes that got stuck in the gothic architecture. You did indeed move slowly, and if you couldnt get out of the way slowly, you just let the plane hit you – moving would cause it damage.

    There was a class called ‘pennyweight’, where the plane had to weigh no more than a US penny.


  16. Simply amazing! Question for those in the know: are they using some special form of rubber bands? BTW, I wonder if there is some nano-tech rubber band 2.0 type materials that could be used for this and ramp up the rubber band “battery life” significantly.

    1. Looks like they used stuff based on natural rubber, nothing too exotic.

      As far as nanotech 2.0 materials improving flight time, you’d better believe it! There’s the possibility that carbon nanotubes or certain high molecular polymers could be used as springs to store 10-1000 times more energy than these rubber band motors store on a per mass basis. So in other words flight duration could go up to days to even weeks.

      The only problem is that the airplane would essentially be a bomb. If the spring were to spontaneously “unwind,” it would release all the store energy instantaneously, causing an explosion.

      Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if these aeromodellers are already using nanotechnology. Carbon nanotube and graphene flakes aren’t that hard to obtain, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out if they’re using such materials as strengthening agents for their homemade thin films.

  17. My dad ran this competition locally for a number of years in a small city in Ontario.

    Some of the guys would get a little miffed because he used a 0.01 gram accurate scale for weigh-ins. Some places only used a 0.1 gram accurate scale. When the weight class limit was 6 grams, he found a number of aircraft coming in at 6.04 grams — which would be 6.0 on a less accurate scale!

    It was a bit of challenge to go back to your bench and shave off 40 milligrams of weight in order to pass weigh-in!

  18. I saw these in Melbourne, in the reading room of the State Library of Victoria. They were flying once a month, I think, in the 1980s. There was a bit of a panic when somebody thought the aircon had been turned on. It must be quite difficult to get them balanced so they fly with a turn of the correct radius, so they don’t hit the walls.

  19. Bit of a specialist end of aeromodelling, but still active in the UK. We also have a good bit of outdoor freeflight too.

    Great getting kids involved, and watching their faces as their creation takes to the air for the first time :-)

    Good to see it getting some profile.

    Public Relations Officer
    British Model Flying Association

  20. Amazing all the way through, but at the end (3:22 onward) was my favorite moment. The modeler is walking behind his graceful, slow-moving plane — it took me two or three rewinds to realize it: that’s not in slow-motion. The plane IS actually that light. Huh. So that’s what a gram looks like all spread out. I’m going to tempt the trolls by using the word “literally” and say that moment was literally amazing.

  21. Been a modeler all my life, and I know a fair bit about F1D just from a spectators standpoint. My thing is more scale aircraft, and what they call sport fliers, still using rubber, but mainly outside in the elements.
    I marvel at the talent and always the ingenuity of these modelers. They nay look quite ‘simple’ I assure you building one is anything but ‘simple’ and they really are the pinnacle of model freeflight, yes we have f1b, the big hardy rubbber planes that fly for 3-10 minutes, technologically advanced creations that astound me as well, but the true pinnacle is F1D and will always be.
    I CANNOT WAIT to see this, it looks truly stunning.
    For those interested there is a smattering of F1D clips on Youtube

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