For centuries, engineers and inventors have attempted to fly by flapping bird-like wings. Leonardo da Vinci sketched the first human-powered ornithopter in 1485, but it remained an elusive dream until recently.

Last month, Todd Reichert, an engineering PhD candidate at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS), flew an ornithopter 145 meters at an average speed of 25.6 kilometers per hour. The aircraft weighs 94 pounds and has a 105-foot wing span, which is comparable to a Boeing 737.

“The Snowbird represents the completion of an age-old aeronautical dream,” says Reichert, who served as lead developer and project manager. “Throughout history, countless men and women have dreamt of flying like a bird under their own power and hundreds, if not thousands, have attempted to achieve it. This represents one of the last of the aviation firsts.”

With sustainability in mind, Reichert and his UTIAS colleagues learned to design and build lightweight, efficient structures. The research also promoted “the use of the human body and spirit,” says Reichert. “The use of human power, when walking or cycling, is an efficient, reliable, healthy and sustainable form of transportation. Though the aircraft is not a practical method of transport, it is meant to act as an inspiration to others to use the strength of their body and the creativity of their mind to follow their dreams.”

To learn more about the latest engineering research efforts at colleges and universities, read the new “On Campus” column in the November issue of ASSEMBLY magazine.