Human Flies Like a Bird? I Don’t Think So

Gizmodo posted a pretty incredible story on March 21, 2012, entitled “Man Flies Like a Bird Flapping His Own Wings.” It claims that a Dutch inventor named Jarno Smeets has built and successfully flown a powered flapping-wing contraption. Accompanying the post is this video, which shows Smeets apparently doing a short run-up and then soaring into the air in an urban park:

My friend John Cook at Gawker alerted me to the story by Twitter, and asked for my input. My immediate reaction was: this doesn’t pass the sniff test. At all. For a couple of reasons:

1)  The machine that Smeets built is called an ornithopter — that is, it propels itself by flapping its wings. Ornithopters are an ancient dream, dating back to the Greek myth of Icarus, but have proven incredibly hard to pull off; it’s a matter of debate whether any human-carrying ornithopter has ever truly flown. I wrote about one attempt a while ago; you can read about it here.

2) Given the difficulty of the undertaking, it would be astonishing if this guy managed to eke out a small altitude gain. In contrast, he freakin’ soars. That’s a steep climbout. This guys has power and performance to burn. First time on a back-mounted ornithopter with a short wingspan and practically no visible powerplant? I doubt it.

3) Maybe a small thing, but: why do his friends run away from his flight path? Wouldn’t they want to see what happens, and maybe help him if necessary? (Look at where people are standing in those iconic photos of the Wright Brothers taking off). Also, why are they so giddily happy? He hasn’t done anything yet, dudes.

4) My biggest annoyance with this story is all the talk about how he linked together “an Android phone and Nintendo Wii controllers” in order to accomplish this amazing feat. To me, that’s a huge red flag: to rig a contraption this way would mean being incredibly clever to be incredible stupid. If you’re going to amplify human motion through power boosting — as the Pentagon has long been investigating, in hopes of building real-world “Iron Man”-type powered suits — the biggest problem by far is the issue of latency. Basically, the machine needs to correct its output virtually simultaneously with your altered input. Sensing someone’s motion using a Wii is a ridiculously complicated and latency-adding approach when you could much more easily do it the way engineers have been doing it in aviation for more than a century: using cables or push rods.

To its credit, Gizmodo has incorporated some skeptical takes in its updated version of the story. Still, the fact that it promoted this hoax in the first place is evidence of its credulousness.

UPDATE: The perpetrators of the hoax quickly gave up the game. In the aftermath, I interviewed a real, live ornithopter pilot for the Pop Mech website about why such craft are so difficult to pull off.

4 thoughts on “Human Flies Like a Bird? I Don’t Think So”

  1. He is actually very honest about how he does it. Even describing the type of motor used to power the wings. That the press gets it wrong isn’t a surprise as they hardly get anything right. Did you miss this part?

    Jarno—who has been featured in print and TV all over Europe—made the harness using aircraft quality aluminum. The harness holds the brushless outrunner motors that power the mechanical propulsion system for the wings. It also contains all the other elements required to steer his invention.

  2. Curious of what you think is dishonest aside from the press? Jarno was very straight forward on how he flew…

  3. His demeanor may appear straightforward, but based on aerodynamic realities it’s clear to me that he is attempting to perpetrate a hoax. Another Gizmodo writer contact CGI experts who gave quite detailed reasons why they believe the video to be a hoax. If Jarno is willing to perform a demonstration in front of the public, I will happily declare myself wrong. According to reports, however, he has gone into hiding. I don’t consider that straightforward.

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