If even the tiniest bit of turbulence during a flight has you reaching for the barf bag, then you’ll never want to climb aboard this Russian contraption that uses flapping wings to take flight. But it demonstrates that Mother Nature’s designs can be supersized to one day revolutionise air travel.
This isn’t the first time we’ve managed to reverse-engineer how airborne creatures like insects and birds take to the sky. In fact, mechanical ornithopters (aircraft that fly using a flapping wing mechanism) are so common that people have been building elastic-powered versions out of balsa wood and paper for years. For $US40 ($50) you can buy a remote control robotic bird that’s surprisingly manoeuvrable for a toy. What’s impressive about this contraption called Serenity, which looks like it was based on one of Da Vinci’s many sketches of potential flying machines, is its scale.
The Russian-built ornithopter is proof that a flapping wing approach to flight isn’t only an option for tiny insects or birds whose skeletal structure and bodies are designed to be as lightweight as possible. With a fuselage that appears to be about 3.05 m long, three sets of flapping wings, and all the mechanisms, linkages, wires, and batteries needed to create the flapping motion, Serenity is easily heavier than even the largest flying creatures we have on Earth. It doesn’t appear to be quite large enough to accommodate a human passenger or pilot just yet, but that’s just a matter of scale and funding — future versions of Serenity could be even larger.
The constant up and down motion of the wings makes Serenity look like it will provide a bumpy ride for anyone who tries to climb aboard, but in the same way birds can keep their heads stabilised while madly flapping their wings, there’s no doubt that’s a complication that can be overcome with more engineering. But why go to all the trouble when planes work just fine?
Modern aircraft are dependent on forward movement to create lift over their wings and stay aloft, which is provided by either jet engines or propellers creating thrust — both very noisy solutions. It also means planes have a minimum speed they must maintain or else they’ll stall and fall out of the sky. Using the movements of an aircraft’s wings to generate lift opens up some incredible potential for manoeuvrability, as anyone who’s watched a dragonfly as it darts around hunting mosquitoes, or a hummingbird carefully drinking from a flower while still in flight, can attest to. Serenity is nowhere close to being able to hover in mid-air, and even its ability to steer is limited, but it demonstrates some exciting potential. Will a Boeing 777 ever flap its giant wings? Probably not, but flapping wings are arguably a safer alternative to strapping a jet engine to people’s backs as a solution to personal flight.