First human-powered ornithopter takes wing (literally), 2010

In 2010, the Snowbird, a human-powered ornithopter created by a University of Toronto team, became the first HPO to sustain flight. The HPO project at U of T has a great YouTube feed of its various flights since, though it seems largely dormant today.

HPO Team News | Human Powered Ornithopter Project (via Lifelines)


  1. The flapping looks pretty incidental to it being airborne.

    If I stick my hand out the car window am I flying an ornithopter too?

  2. They seem to be counting “sustained flight” time, starting with the moment of release from the towing vehicle. The human power and flapping are extending the time in the air. However, since they need to car for the initial tow and launch, I’d tend to see this is an aided glide rather than true, human-powered ornithopter flight, which I would expect to achieve take-off and altitude (flight) through human power.

  3. There’s no need to state that “literally” something occurred, when the use of the word is a pun.. it insults the reader for not being able to recognize figurative language..

  4. Perhaps it’s been sitting forgotten because despite the wings flapping it didn’t actually provide more lift than it’s weight? Ie, it can’t perform useful powered flight, only glide? 

      1. Yeah this one, with the prop was the real deal.  Actually flew 71 miles from Crete to Santorini, which is pretty gutsy.  One swift gust and it woulda been a dunk in the shark tank.

  5. I saw a talk by this UToronto group, and the human flaps the wings via a leg-press mechanism.  Humans are heavy, and so are the wings required to provide the lift to stay airborne, so a human-powered ornithopter sustaining longer flight (even more so taking off without assistance) probably isn’t going to happen anytime soon.  The human body just simply can’t provide the necessary amount of power.

  6. The “runway” and clear flight path chosen seem either overly or underly optimistic in length to me.  Either they expected it to soar skyward and clear the trees with ease, or they were thrilled to make it a quarter mile before returning to earth.

  7. Ornithopter Gnome Business Plan…

    1) Make post of half assed flight video in 2010
    2) Declare victory
    3) Don’t post a followup

    Yea – no question mark is there.

  8. I took zoology in Junior high, I call  B.S.

    Those wings are soaring wings, or High Ratio. They require a very long taxi, even into the wind. Most birds who have these wings, either land on water, like an albatross, or live on cliffs  a.k.a aeries.  or in large trees. Even bats, who have large wing-to-body ratio, start their flight by dropping off a ceiling of some sort first. 

    Birds with these same sized wings also have a hard time landing. It’s  dangerous, they need to pull up short, then settle straight down; imagine a jet doing that. 

    Finally, if anyone has a basic idea of bird anatomy, especially muscular, I don’t thinks there’s a single human alive that can take off on their own FROM LAND. Maybe a cliff, but then that’s gliding/soaring.  

  9. It is funny how fake the video is.
    I would like to clarify couple of points about the ornithoper, as a team member:

    1) the goal was to sustain flight. This means that we had to demonstrate that, on a windless day, we can keep both the flight altitude and the flight speed constant over a given period. We showed that after the tow was released, the pilot power was enough to keep the altitude and speed constant for 14-21 seconds. After that the pilot was too tired, and the runway too short to keep going. 

    2) the airplane is towed in the air because the wings cannot flap when the airplane is on the ground. The flapping generates large forces in the airframe, and we could not make a light enough and strong enough landing gear to resist the body of the airplane smashing against the ground at takeoff. 
    (the UTIAS engine powered ornithopter, that we were also involved, broke its landing gear quite a few times at takeoff).

    3) the videos and data we presented to the FIA were strong enough for them to recognise our achievement (FIA also had observers present for the flight). 

    4) The team is not disbanded. We started a team to race in the World Human Powered Speed Championships where we achieved 73mph on a level road in an aerodynamic bicycle last year. This year we are gunning for the 83mph world record (University of Toronto Human Powered Vehicle Team). We also have a few other projects that we will work on during summer. The ornithopter achieved everything it was designed to achieve, and the airframe was getting very stressed, so further flights were no longer possible. 



    EDIT: Our aerodynamic bike video:

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