Archive for the ‘Aeronautics’ Category

I came across a very cool video today morning and that gives this post its name. Before I get into that, I think it would be much desirable to give an introduction to Ornithopters in general and talk about some robotic ornithopters. For those interested solely in the video, well it is at the end of the post (second last video).



An Ornithopter basically means an aircraft (even a robot) that can fly by flapping its wings. Though the word might sound complicated initially (Although the prefix Ornith- is well known). All of us at some point in time (whether as a childhood fantasy or as a serious hobby or professional work) have wanted Ornithopters. Ornithopters have been a fantasy since very ancient times, and it is obvious to have been as birds have always fascinated and amazed humans. There have been many reported Ornithopters in Hindu mythology. Also the legend of Daedalus and Icarus is well known, in which Daedalus designed feathered wings to fly out of the island of Crete on to which he was imprisoned.

The legendary Leonardo Da Vinci – A genius  imprisoned in a time where his ideas just could not have been realized, made some designs of Ornithopters and other glider type flying machines (but let’s avoid machines that do not have any moving wings in this post, though some are very cool). Some of which were very good engineering designs.


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Though we tend to regard the idea of wing powered machines as failed because of the success of modern day style aircraft there have been many successful flights. The first reported to have flown successfully was made in 1929 by Alexander Lippisch, it flew about 300 meters before the flight was terminated due to the obvious limitations of human muscle power. A number of motorized ornithopters have been made since then. A number of people take  Ornithopters as a serious hobby.


Modern Ornithopters

These days though, the interest has been more in ornithopters that resemble insects, such as bees, both as toys and sophisticated autonomous flying spy robots. The size of such Miniature Aerial Vehicles would ensure they are impossible to detect and hence are perfect for spying missions. Especially in the case of urban warfare when the opposing party might be holed up in a building. Thus, needless to say these can be very helpful in counter-terror operations. The aim in making such bots would be to make them very low cost with flight times as high as 5-6 hours. Let me cite some examples of some cool miniature aerial vehicles of the ornithopter category.

After some early feasibility studies done at the Lincoln laboratories at the MIT, DARPA in 1997 began a multi-million dollar program to make some sophisticated Miniature Aerial Vehicles (MAVs), some of the designs and projects also included ornithopters.

One such ornithopter was the MicroBat ornithopter developed at the California Institute of Technology along with AeroVironment and UCLA.


[The MicroBat Ornithopter, Image Source]

This paper reports the making  of the MicroBat Ornithopter. The excerpt to the paper:

This paper reports the successful development of “Microbat,” the first electrically powered palm-sized ornithopter. This first prototype was flown for 9 seconds in October 1998. It was powered by two 1-farad super capacitors. Due to the rapid discharge of the capacitor power source, the flight duration was limited. To achieve a longer flight, a rechargeable battery as a power source is preferred. The second prototype houses a small 3-gram rechargeable Ni-Cad battery. The best flight performance for this prototype lasted 22 seconds. The latest and current prototype is radio-controlled and is capable of turning left or right, pitching up or down. It weighs approximately 12.5 grams. So far, the best flight duration achieved is 42 seconds. The paper also discusses the study of flapping-wing flight in the wind tunnel using wings developed by MEMS technology. This enables a better understanding the key elements in developing efficient wings to achieve aerodynamic advantage in flapping-wing flight.

Another research group led by Robert C. Michelson made another Ornithopter called the Entomopter. This went one step ahead and can be called a milestone in MAV ornithopter development. The aim was to closely mimick the flight of birds and thus totally eliminate the usage of gears and motors. The entomopter is driven by wings that are driven by a reciprocating chemical muscle.


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Ornithopter Toys

There are now a number of companies that offer ornithopter toys. One of the most well known probably is the FlyTech Dragonfly from WowWee, It is a remote controlled wireless ornithopter. It seems like a pretty fun toy. You can see a video on this toy here >>

800px-flytech_dragonfly_blue_1200px [FlyTech DragonFly Ornithopter]

A number of people take making ornithopters as a very serious hobby. If you wish to make one, then I would direct you to this page.


Butterfly Ornithopter

Finally I come to the part that gave this blog post its title. ;-)

In a paper at IROS 2008, researchers from the Shimoyama – Matsumoto Lab at the university of Tokyo presented their work on an extremely light butterfly ornithopter.


[Butterfly Ornithopter: Image Source]

The artificial butterfly wing consists of a thin polymer membrane which is supported by viens of plastic having rectangular cross section. The purpose of this paper was to study the effect of veins on the performance of flight. The parameters for this “butterfly” are more or less comparable to that of an actual butterfly.The weight of the ornithopter including the wings is just about 0.39 gms and the flapping frequency 10 Hz.

Here is a fantastic video of the Ornithopter depicted in the figure above:


Some more work on Ornithopters at Shimoyama – Matsumoto Lab:

Since I have just mentioned the work on the Butterfly Ornithopter, there is some cool work going at the Shimoyama – Matsumoto Lab on ornithopters.

>> Dragonfly Type of Ornithopters

>> Butterfly Type of Ornithopters

>> Hovering Flight of Ornithopters


[Hovering Type Ornithopter: Image Source]


Bio-Inspired Flying Robots

Finally before ending, I would like to post a bonus video ;-)

This video was the winner at the AAAI – 08 video contest. Like the video on Morphogenesis (Swarm Intelligence) which I posted about 10 months back, which was also a winner in the same contest, this video too is excellent.


Quick Links:

1. MAVSTAR – Micro Aerial Vehicles for Search Tracking and Reconnaissance.

2. A Reciprocating Chemical Muscle for Micro Air Vehicle “Entomopter” Flight – GTRI

3. Nano Air Vehicle – DARPA

4. Ornithopter Zone – Excellent site for the hobbyist.

5.  Project Ornithopter – Project on making Ornithopters on a much larger scale than those discussed in this post.


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The old Orion project had a few potential problems. There were doubts regarding the stability of the system, but with modern simulation technology this can be verified rather easily and without the need for an actual empirical investigation. The main problem however was the possible nuclear fallout. This was the most important reason due to which the project was shelved. The treaty of 1963 came as the final blow.

Even with the newer “versions” of Orion like projects there are all sorts of problems.

While the Orion was important for its time (in terms of stimulating possible engineering concepts), I would currently view it as “post period”.
A better possible concept is when will we have the technology to effectively observe “everything”? If you can observe it you do not have to “go there”. There are of course limits, and of course these should be discussed. But current planned satellites allow us to “go there” much more effectively without the need for an Orion like project.

I believe the Mars rovers can provide a good example of how to do things now. They have lasted something like 2-3 years longer than their design life. So long as one builds in fault tolerance bots could have even longer lifetimes.
We are not going to really get there until we have true nanorobots that can be organized to operate collectively because these can be launched with very small rockets.

The solution to managing things is what is known as a “broadcast architecture” (which is very similar to what NASA uses now with satellites but on a somewhat larger scale).

Even with the mini-mag there are problems. First, basing a propulsion system on 245 Cm presumes that you could synthesize sufficient amounts of it. That is a massive undertaking.

Second, it assumes one needs to navigate 100ton spaceships around the solar system. We do not. We need to be able to launch nanorobots into orbits that can easily be transported to various places in the solar system to manage development. That requires lots of micro-rockets — not the huge spaceships designed to transport humans to places they were they are not adapted to live. This i have already touched upon in the previous paragraph. The paper (cited in the previous entry) is a classic example of good physicists doing good work who have little understanding of nanotechnology or microbiology. They also are stuck in 1960’s era concepts that “we” should go there when we have to completely alter the human genome before we should even consider that. And by then we will likely be dead or uploaded and so it is pointless to attempt 1960’s era transport of us.

Related Articles:

Death of a project: Project Orion

Possible Rebirth of Project Orion?

Morphogenesis and Swarm Robotics

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For fans of the dated Orion and Orion like projects there is some hope though. :)

It is in the form of the Mini-Mag-Orion. It tries to address some issues with the old model and uses modern techniques for simulation as well.

The detailed report can be found as a pdf here (Andrews Space)

A quick summary of this paper:

It – if it becomes reality – can give us the entire solar system with travel times to Mars of a couple of months and to Jupiter in less than a year. In it you compress SMALL pieces of fissionable material (curium245 or uranium 235 or uranium233 or plutonium 239) with the aid of a pulsating super-strong electromagnetic field so that their small masses compressed into ultra-small volumes become supercritical and explode. They explode INSIDE a superconducting magnetic rocket nozzle. One explosion per second.

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