Man flies like a bird, uses Android to control his wings. Can it be true?

March 21, 2012
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Before we get into this story, a caveat: April 1 is just 10 days away. So, the story of a Dutchman who supposedly flew with a flapping-wing contraption (controlled by an HTC Wildfire S) might well be one of the most elaborate hoaxes in recent memory. But again, part of me wants it to be true so hard that I can’t help to run it.

The story has already garnished hundreds of pro and con commentaries on Gizmodo or Wired, plus a positive appreciation from head Mythbuster Jamie Hyneman. Plus, the part that interests the readers of AndroidAuthority – the use of an Android phone as a “brain” of the wingpack – is certainly feasible and reasonable.

But let’s get on to the story. Here’s the mind-blowing video of the supposed man-powered flight.

The backstory

A Dutch engineer named Jarno Smeets, which we will refer henceforth to as the Flying Dutchman, claims he has built a flapping-wing system that he successfully used to take off and fly like a bird. He documented his work on creating the device on his website, HumanBirdWings.net.

Apparently, it took Smeets, a mechanical engineer, 8 months to turn his dream into reality. Along the way, he recorded several videos that show him and his friends working on the flying apparatus, which you can check out for yourself on his YouTube channel.

An HTC Wildfire S, Wii remotes, plus some electric motors

Now, Smeets doesn’t claim that he managed to take of solely on his own power. His flying device, which he calls a wingpack, uses servos and electric motors to augment his flapping movements and give the man+wings ensemble enough power to generate lift.

According to the Dutchman, he needed 2000 Watts of power to achieve lift off, of which his body only provided about 5%. The rest came from two Turnigy motors, powered by lithium-ion batteries. In a way, the concept is similar to the exoskeletons developed by the US Army that let soldiers carry huge loads or run for miles without tiring. Totally sci-fi stuff, totally real.

On to the Android part. To control the wingpack and coordinate the moves of the 17 m2 wings, Smeets says he used an HTC Wildfire S (fitted with an accelerometer), as well as two Wii Motion Plus controllers and a Wii Nunchuck. The Android phone is effectively the brain of the apparatus, which it controls via an $80 Seeduino ADK microcontroller (very similar to Google’s Android Open Accessory Kit for Developers). If my understanding is correct, the phone presumably calculates the parameters required to move the wings in a coordinate fashion.

The video shows Smeets flapping his arms, which causes the motorized wings to produce a bird-like movement. The result is visible in the video, so I won’t debate any further. Fake or real, the video sure made me gasp, which, in the age of the Internet, is definitely an achievement.

More than meets the eye

I am not going to discuss whether the Flying Dutchman is a real visionary that managed to turn a centuries-old dream into reality or just a very patient hoaxer with an appetite for publicity. I’ll let you decide that for yourself.

Although it may all be a big April Fools’ Day joke, the concept behind might be closer to reality than you think. We’ve already seen how movement augmentation technology turns sci-fi into reality, and it’s not absurd to believe that, one day, technology will advance enough to create real bird-like flying machines.

And it’s nice to think that Android may power the whole thing. What do you think?

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