Fulfilling man's earliest flight ambitions

While students at University of Toronto, Aerovelo founders Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson initiated and carried out the Human-Powered Ornithopter (HPO) Project, nicknamed Snowbird. The HPO team sought to achieve one of humanity’s oldest dreams with the successful flight of a human-powered, flapping-wing aircraft. The overall team goal was to provide students with practical hands on experience in engineering design while at the same time promoting efficiency, sustainability and the use of human power as a means of reducing society’s impact on the environment.

The HPO started as a spin-off of the flapping-wing research being con­ducted at the University of Toronto. The team was comprised of a dedicated group of graduate and undergraduate engineering students. An advisory board of experienced aerospace engineers, including successful ornithopter designer Prof. James DeLaurier, lent their expertise to the project. The team also col­laborated with Dutch rowingbike designer Derk Thys, who brought to the project more than twenty years of experience in the design of efficient rowing mechanisms. A Rowingbike mechanism was used in the HPO to transmit power from the pilot to the wings.

The project was initiated in the summer of 2006 with initial low-fidelity proof-of-concept simulations. Research and testing of various construction techniques took place between 2006 and the summer of 2008 when the team relocated to the Great Lakes Gliding Club in Tottenham, Ontario, to begin construction. Construction primarily took place in a barn on-site during the summer of 2008 and 2009. The first flight tests began in October of 2009 and resumed, after a winter hiatus, in July 2010. The Snowbird has a total span of 32 m, an empty weight of 44.7 kg and flies at a speed of 25.6 km/h


It is no surprise that humanity’s first attempts at flight were in the form of birdlike, human-powered ornithopters. The great artist and engineer Leonardo Da Vinci is frequently credited as the first to propose a reasonable flying machine in 1490: a giant bat-shaped craft that uses both the pilot’s arms and legs to power the wings. Though the aircraft was never built, and we now know that it would not have flown, it was a remarkable achievement considering the knowledge of the day. At the turn of the 20th century, focus shifted both in the method of thrust production (from flapping wings to the propeller) and the method of power generation (from the human body to the internal combustion engine). With the aerodynamic problem greatly simplified, the impossibility of human flight was disproved by the Wright brother’s flight in 1903 and the stage was set for the boom of aircraft developments in the decades to come. Though work on human-powered aircraft was still carried on from time to time by several groups in various countries, it would be three-quarters of a century before anyone mastered the art of human-powered flight, and a decade beyond that before the complex aerodynamics of flapping wings would be properly understood.