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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Prometheus and Human Bird Flight

Modern Robotic Strength Enhancement
First an important follow up:

A while back I wrote about Prometheus in "Insane Medical Patents."  Prometheus Laboratories wanted to patent certain notions of testing for disease such that in order to discover your child had a disease you'd be required (directly or indirectly) to use patented technology - of course filling the coffers of big pharma in the process.

I said this was total BS.

Fortunately for all of us the US Supreme Court agrees unanimously (see this WSJ article).  Wisely they indicated that patenting a natural process - such as extracting DNA from blood for a test - was " [a] well-understood, routine, conventional activity already engaged in by the scientific community."

You can plan on big pharma punishing us by not providing research or drugs for little Johnny's obscure cancer claiming that without these sorts of patents there's no money in it.

In general the US Supreme Court has wisely shown distaste for patents involving measurement of "natural processes" - genes, protein levels, and so on claiming as above that these tests are "obvious."

Human-powerd Bird Flight

Another important event recently (January 20th, 2012) in the Netherlands - Jarno Smeets, using his homemade bird wings - took to the air for the first time:

His wings are semi-powered in that the flapping motion is not human powered.  Instead motors amplify the strength and motion of his arms to give his body the strength to fly.   His concept was to use the concept of robotic prosthetics used to aid amputees to build arm amplifiers - basically the wings follow the motion of his arms and amplify it.

Smeets calculated that a human weighing 80kg needs about 2,000 Watts of power to fly.  Since human arms and pectoral muscles can only support 100W of power out-rigger motors supply the rest of the needed power.

There is some technical background in this video:

Smeets' blog and website is available here which covers this project from its inception.

Modern technology such as extremely light weight fabrics (each wing in the video weighs only 37 oz), high powered batteries, and other lightweight materials make Smeets' project practical - very similar to the Wright brothers first flights.

In 1903 the Wright brothers took advantage of the then-new gasoline engine technology to create enough power to get their flying machine off the ground.

I think the idea of "prosthetic wings," however, is quite different from the various hang gliders, flying suits and other glider technologies available today.  Smeets used Wii controllers to capture the motion of his arms and transfer that data to the outrigger motors for his wings.

"Strength Amplification Suits" (like the one pictured above) have been around in magazines like Popular Mechanics since at least the 1950's.  However building practical versions required technologies that were not available at the time (as mentioned above).

Smeets focuses on this technology only for his wings - which is good because it eliminates a lot of other issues in terms of design.

I think having Wii controllers is excellent as well because the "intelligence" in the flapping system uses the Wii data as guidance; say as opposed to a mechanical linkage directly between his arms and the wings.  This allows an intelligent flight controller to prevent random arm motions from creating aerodynamic instabilities that could case a crash.

While you might thing this is just a cute "demo" remember how far the Wright's first flights were from plane flying even ten years later.

Smeets technology shows the way to get into the air from virtually anywhere.  Once there, like most large birds, human flight would be about riding thermals and gliding rather than expending energy to flap your way somewhere.

As technology improves batteries and materials more advanced flight will be possible.

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