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Discover Flapping Wings!


An ornithopter is a device that flies by flapping wings.

How is it different from an airplane or helicopter? Those machines are driven by rotating airfoils. In an ornithopter, the driving airfoils have a back-and-forth motion instead. This imitates nature, because no animals have any rotating parts.

Leonardo da Vinci did not invent the ornithopter.

The idea of the ornithopter goes back to ancient times. Ancient Assyrians depicted God flying in a winged chariot or ornithopter about 3,000 years ago. Ornithopter attempts were made before Leonardo's time, and Leonardo himself never actually built one -- he only drew sketches. The first successful flight of a manned ornithopter took place in 1942.

Build your own ornithopter!

Experience the challenge of building your own ornithopter. You can start with a simple, rubber-band-powered mechanical bird, and then work your way up to a large, radio-controlled ornithopter. The most comprehensive supplier for ornithopter kits is BirdKit.com.

Ornithopter Major Types
Free Flight : These ornithopters are the simplest and least expensive to build. They are powered by winding up a rubber band, and they can be flown indoors. These ornithopters are great for a school competition to see who can get the longest flight time. The challenge of building and flying these ornithopters is a great way for kids to learn about science and how to work as a team.

Electric Powered Ornithopters: Many ornithopters are powered by electric motor and battery. These ornithopters range from 10 cm wingspan "micro air vehicles" to the size of an eagle. These ornithopters are radio controlled, and usually the tail is used for steering. They can be purchased as a ready made toy, or built by the hobbyist.
Robotic Ornithopters : The most advanced ornithopters use an on-board computer to mimic the brain and nervous system of a real bird. High performance "servos" are the artificial muscles that move the wings. Hobbyists can write their own programming and explore how various wing movements can be used to control the flight of the ornithopter.
Manned Ornithopters: A few manned ornithopters have made successful flights. Some people are not aware of this work, and they still believe that manned flapping-wing flight is impossible. The manned ornithopter is not the crazy idea that people once thought. However, it does require more advanced technology than the simple airplane.
Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is an "ornithopter"?
A: An ornithopter is a device that imitates the flapping-wing flight found in nature. The word "ornithopter" (c.1908) combines the ancient Greek words for "bird" and "wing". An ornithopter doesn't need to have feathers, though. What makes it birdlike is the flapping motion! Airplanes have a rotating propeller. Helicopters have a rotary wing that provides both lift and thrust. Instead of rotation, the ornithopter wing imitates the reciprocating motion of a bird's wing.

Q: Why flapping wings?
A: Many people like to build and fly ornithopters, just because ornithopters are amazing! There are practical benefits as well: flapping wings potentially offer improved efficiency, better maneuverability, and reduced noise compared with the rotary-driven airplanes and helicopters. The resemblance to a real bird can also be useful, e.g., for spying or for keeping birds away from airport runways.

Q: Have people ever flown in an ornithopter?
A: Yes. Adalbert Schmid's engine-powered manned ornithopters, flown in 1942 and 1947, were the most successful to date. Several other manned ornithopters have made successful flights.

Q: How does an ornithopter fly?
A: The ornithopter works on the same principle as the airplane. The forward motion through the air allows the wings to deflect air downward, producing lift. The flapping motion of the wings takes the place of a rotating propeller. more

Q: Why doesn't the upstroke cancel out the downstroke?
A: The force produced by a wing depends on the angle the wing is held at, relative to its motion through the air. This is called the "angle of attack". During the upstroke, the angle of attack is adjusted so that the wing isn't pushing down. more

Q: Can I build my own ornithopter?
A: Yes! Many people build ornithopters as a hobby or school project. There are free plans on this web site, but you will have a better chance of success if you start with one of the model kits that you can buy online.

Q: Where can I get funding for my project?
A: The Ornithopter Society now has a grants program to facilitate research in flapping-wing flight.


More About Ornithopters

Learn more about ornithopters by joining the Ornithopter Society.