The personal website of Douglas C. George.


A design exercise and ruminations on a human powered ornithopter

The Pteranodon Ten is a design exercise to explore the possibilities for a leg powered ornithopter. Except for a bird's hollow bones, humans and birds have essentially the same mechanical structure, the same muscles and the same servo-feedback mechanisms. Other than hollow bones, the crucial difference is that, in birds, the breast muscles are maximized for powered flight while, in humans, the leg muscles are the most developed. It would seem, therefore, that for a muscle powered ornithopter, humans must somehow utilize leg muscles to power the wings strokes. Arm and hand muscles would be utilized for those control functions, such as angle of attack, that require less power.

Learning how to do anything requires three essential processes: 1) setting a goal; 2) real-time monitoring of actual conditions; and 3) servo-feedback circuits to close the gap between the actual condition and the intended goal. With this in mind, learning how to fly boils down to wanting to fly and having large, appropriate aerodynamic surfaces coupled to our biological servo-feedback mechanisms. Given a decent set of wings, we could learn how to fly.

The intention here is to put flying on the same level as surfing or bicycling. You would learn by trying. Flying is a complicated business, of course, and learning to fly this machine would require special procedures---like being suspended from a rotating yardarm or properly tethered in a airflow. Because the feet are mechanically linked to the wings, I imagine the feel of it would be something like standing on two surfboards that are tied together in the middle but independently free to rotate. It wouldn't be easy but it shouldn't be impossible either.

The Pteranodon Ten is envisioned primarily as a soaring machine with the added capability of leg-powered flapping.

The basics

Click the link below to watch a brief-and-flaky animation. (It's better if you can set your viewer to continuous-loop mode) And, please note that the animation is too fast; imagine the flapping cycle to be much slower (like around three or four seconds).

Ornithopter Animation (1.1 MB Windows Media Video [WMV] File