BYU Students Fly Tiny, Birdlike 'Ornithopter' at Competition

  Flapping its mechanical wings, a hummingbird-like "ornithopter" built by Brigham Young University students is at once an engineering feat and a sign of things to come in unmanned surveillance technology.

The tiny flying wonder (click for video), along with other fix-winged micro air vehicles less than 6 inches wide, took to the skies near Saratoga Springs on May 20 as part of the 10th Annual Micro Air Vehicles Competition.

For senior Erin Reed, designing tiny, radio-controlled aircraft is not only an engineering challenge, but also a way to impress friends and family.

"My plane fits inside my hand. When I tell people it's that small, they are blown away," said Reed. "They ask me, 'How does it get in the air?' Amazingly, it does."

Jerry Bowman, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and faculty adviser to the BYU team, said the competition gives students a chance to showcase their ingenuity.

"Working within set guidelines, students take engineering principles they've learned in class, come up with innovative designs and turn their ideas into working models," said Bowman. "The chance to take the project from start to finish really adds to their educational experience. Plus, it's a lot of fun."

Miniature planes have many potential applications. For example, police could use them to track fleeing criminals, journalists could enter difficult-to-access areas for live footage, or search-and-rescue teams could pilot a plane into a tight spot to better assess emergency situations.

"Video capability is really only the surface," said Bowman. "Attach a microphone or a chemical sensor to the plane and you can collect many other types of information."

The competition, which is sponsored by NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratory, among others, consisted of four events – a surveillance test to see which planes can successfully transmit video from the air to home base, an endurance test to see which plane can go the longest distance and a design competition in the form of a written report.

The fourth event was a test to see which team could build and fly the smallest radio-controlled ornithopter. A point system determined the overall winner.

The ornithopter category is something that's been added to the competition since it was last held in Utah in 2002. At that event, BYU's team took first place overall.

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