For Norbert Hoeller

For Norbert and the Bioinspired! Newsletter team,

Though the trailer for Winged Migration informed me that I would leave the theater convinced I could fly, Gabriel Poulain and Paul MacCready had helped to prove this years earlier. A great and as yet un-google-able naturalist named Keith Albritton opened the bird door for me with a brown creeper in Sequoia National Park during the El Nino winter of 1992-1993 and since then, I’ve traveled to places like Sweden, Israel, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador and Alaska with a Klondike-sized mother-load of love for them in my heart. When years pass between visits with rhinoceros auklets, boreal owls, blue grosbeaks and black-throated green warblers, seeing them again in wild places brings the joy of meeting old friends. I wait and listen for Swainson’s thrush to bring its flute back to these warming woods. In contemplating their songs, I learn more about what is at stake with climate change and peak oil. They are excellent teachers, those birds; they sing a warning. If we Homo sapiens don’t adapt to a whole host of new selection pressures very, very soon, our species story will wind down tragically just as it is getting so very interesting.

It’s about time for us to think beyond the car. A metamorphosis is desperately needed. With the world population clock for Homo sapiens curving sharply toward 6.9 billion persons, the environmental impact of our century long relationship with the automobile is also following a dramatic up-tick. A broad host of new transportation technologies can already be chucked into a bin marked, ‘too little, too late’. ANY widely embraced mode of transportation that results in a net increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, through production, operation, or dismantling is a losing proposition for us and for the rest of the biosphere. The building and maintaining of our vast network of roads has contributed an enormous amount of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and will continue to do so for as long as we cling to the idea that we need 2 tons of internally combusting exoskeletons for protective locomotion. The idea of the road must be updated. The future can’t at all be like the present and we all know it. Let us please step back and consider another way. We earnestly need to be brave and imaginative again.

Way back in 1921, at 4:43 am outside Paris on July 9th, an athlete named Gabriel Poulain pedaled a 37-pound winged bicycle or, aviette, to a speed of about 45 km/hr before a crowd of onlookers. Then he released a clutch, which altered the angle of the wings relative to the ground by six degrees. Gabriel and the bike promptly went aloft for more than 10 meters after taking flight from level ground. For this, he was awarded the Prix Peugeot and a sum of ten thousand francs. Human-powered air travel had begun.

In the years since then, our cumulative effort as a species has resulted in a straight-line flight of 71.53 miles. A team from MIT achieved this record in 1988 by further refining an approach used by Paul MacCready to cross the English Channel with his Gossamer Albatross in 1979. The revised, ponderously long-winged bike (named Daedalus) and one cyclist flew from the Mediterranean island of Crete, as did its mythological progenitor. This was a flight of more than seventy miles powered solely by creativity, determination and twitching human muscle tissue. As author Bill McKibben has implored, the time has come to “step it up”.

Scarcely 20 months ago, on July 8 2006, James DeLaurier and his team at the University of Toronto succeeded in getting pilot Jack Sanderson off the ground with their flapping-winged ornithopter. Video of this achievement posted on the Internet demonstrates how we are beginning to operate as a superorganism. Our individual synaptic collections are now firing across tens of thousands of miles at the speed of light to receive comment and suggestions for modification in a public forum.

The new realm of Wikinomics suggests that mass collaboration on projects such as these can dramatically reduce costs, improve results and shorten incubation times. We are collectively authoring our own adaptation to the punctuated selection pressure knocking ever more insistently at the door. The question is, how quickly can we change? Studies reveal that species often demonstrate remarkable cooperative behavior in response to crisis. I see our species learning to cooperate and communicate right now on a scale never before imagined.
Can DeLaurier’s ornithopter be parlayed into a sweat intensive bird suit with sophisticated flapping flight software? Absolutely. Can we culture the materials we need like yogurt instead of using traditional heat, beat and treat methods of production? Why not? Can we ensure that birdsuit 2.1 will be a suitable soil amendment when 2.2 becomes available? Much of the work has already been done. Synthesis is what’s needed. CSIRO in Australia can culture the proteins that insects use to fly. Sophisticated Mathematical models of birdflight already fit onto thumb drives 100 times over. Rock climbers, mountain bikers, water skiers, free heel skiers, wind surfers, kite boarders, paragliders and kayakers use gear that is growing both lighter and stronger over time.

Black Diamond’s Camalots are spring loaded camming units that nestle into cracks in rocks then bite hard. The .75-sized cam is 119 grams but can hold lead-climber fall forces of 14kN. Imagine if you can, that you are a bird aloft. Gravity wants to bring your mass to the earth, but your outstretched wings flap against the air pushing up on them. Stop flapping for a moment and increasing air pressure acts to push the outstretched wing upward. Borrowing from the concept of the cam, why not use the power of springs to balance out the load? In other words, springs can be used to make the downswept position of the wing the default position in the absence of upward air pressure. Play with a camming unit and watch the geese in Winged Migration and you’ll feel the connection. With a little math and experimentation, these forces could be balanced so that muscular energy input causes either altitude gain or increased velocity.

For biomimicry to be most effective, a particular species must be emulated intensively. The great blue heron is a slow, low flyer over water and could provide us with a comparatively safer vehicle to explore our new potential. RoboSwift, the bio-inspired morphing winged micro aerial vehicle made its first flight on March 3 of this year and is able to continually adapt the shape of its wings to flying conditions. Imagine a solar and/or wind charged Maxwell Technologies BOOSTCAP ultracapacitor battery assisting with take offs. The wings fold and flex in response to muscle movements of their wearer, but are wired to emulate precisely the gentle flapping motion of the heron. They repel water, but are compostable, designed for low altitude flight not exceeding 45 km/hr. They reflect the work of Peter Augustsson, Krister Wolff, and Peter Nordin who authored the paper, ‘Creation of a Learning Flying Robot by Means of Evolution’ from the Department of Physical Resource Theory at Chalmers University of Technology in Goteburg Sweden. They incorporate the models described by the University of Washington’s Jia-chi Wu and Zoran Popovic in ‘Realistic Modeling of Bird Flight Animations’. They build on DeLaurier and Harris’s ‘Study of Mechanical Flapping-wing Flight’ and demonstrate Leonardo DaVinci’s credo; ‘the bird is a machine that operates according to mathematical principles’.

Let’s step atop a catapult wearing a solar-charged ultracapacitor-assisted heron suit of our sincerest longing and press the eject button. It’s time to hurl ourselves ten feet into the air over a deep lake and commence flapping at the top of our parabola. It’s time to feel the sun on our faces and know that it is powering our ascent. It is time to break that old 1988 record of 71 human-powered air miles and talk openly about leaving the car behind. To this end, we’ll need a collaborative, transparent, not-for-profit venue for idea sharing and commentary. We know we need to make a big change in the way we live on this planet. Why not cooperatively go after one of our longest held aspirations as a species? My four and a half year old daughter is looking forward to her first turns in the sky.

One thought on “For Norbert Hoeller

  1. Many successful human-powered aircraft are flown every year for a contest sponsored by Yomiuri TV – search for “JAPAN INTERNATIONAL BIRDMAN RALLY” on the net or “human-powered airplane” in YouTube.

    The major problem — yes, human flight is (barely) possible but for fixed-wing airplanes the wingspan will have to be ~100 feet and it’s unlikely you can fly more that 15 mph – notice how in videos of human-powered airplanes people can jog alongside. A bicycle is MUCH cheaper, and faster too.

    Human-powered blimps (search for: “white dwarf” blimp) solve most of the fragility problems of fixed-wing airplanes but are if anything slower.

    Any type of aerial navigation is quite a bit more complicated and takes more skill than if sticking to the surface of the earth.

    Don’t get me wrong, flying is really cool, especially under your own power, but it can never be a serious substitute for other forms of transportation like cars, motorcycles, or bicycles. And if what you want to do is fly, then get a hang-glider or paraglider for unpowered flight or a powered ultralight/microlight if powered flight is desired.


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