Imagine strapping on a pair of giant multicolored wings, except they’re not actually attached to your arms — you control them without actually touching them, waving your hands up and down in the air, birdlike, causing the wings to move in tandem. Before you know it, you’re up, up and away, rising into the sky like the lovechild of a peacock and an albatross, soaring over the terrain without so much as a single jet turbine or propeller blade.
The guy in the video up top — a Dutchman named Jarno Smeets with mad engineering skills — claims to have done exactly that at a park in south Holland this last weekend on March 18. And all he used to pull it off, in addition to a pair of giant, flexible wings built out of kites and fortified by carbon windsurf masts, was a Wii controller and an HTC smartphone. [Update: It’s a hoax — see the video below for the big reveal.]
Early attempts at flight by mimicking the way birds flap their wings were, to put it mildly, not very successful. But if birds can do it, why don’t airplanes have flapping wings? Because flapping is terribly inefficient compared to mechanical propellers, says Dr. James Usherwood, who has a chapter called “Flying and Walking: Learning from Nature” in the book The Seventy Great Mysteries of the Natural World. For instance, Usherwood notes that a pigeon uses up to four times the energy a helicopter needs to get off the ground.
But Smeets was having none of it. “Until now people had assumed that it was impossible to fly with bird-like wings using human muscle power,” reads his press release. To unsettle that assumption, Smeets’ DIY, wireless-haptic driven system for bird-flight employs two Wii controllers and the accelerometers from an HTC Wildfire S smartphone along with Turnigy motors to power 17m2 wings. What’s more, the design “[allows] him to move his arms freely without any risk of breaking them.” That’s perhaps the most striking part of the video — the image of a man rapidly flapping his arms in free-space, as the giant wings above them all but perfectly track their motions.
“Ever since I was a little boy I have been inspired by pioneers like Otto Lilienthal, Leonardo da Vinci and also my own grandfather,” writes Smeets. All it took in the end was a little ingenuity, a lot of gumption and about six months of research and development. And by sharing what he did with others through his blog and opening up the design to followers, Smeets was able to essentially crowd-source his way to finished, usable concept.
[Update: Some are questioning the veracity of the video above, and since we obviously haven’t seen the flight firsthand, nor has Smeets yet responded to our request for confirmation the flight was real, we can’t vouch for its authenticity at this time (though we can’t yet call it inauthentic, either).]
[Update 2: Wired, which originally ran the story as fact, now says a followup investigation suggests the whole thing’s a hoax, that Smeets’ resume “doesn’t check out” and reports that “nobody knows him.”]
[Update 3: It turns out the whole thing was indeed a hoax, and an elaborate eight-month attention grab by a Netherlands artist named Floris Kaayk (calling himself ‘Jarno Smeets’ above). “No my name is Floris Kaayk,” says Kaayk to an interviewer on a Dutch television program in the video below. “I’m actually a filmmaker and animator. I am now 8 months working on an experiment about online media.”]