Today, we think of flight as one of the safest and most heavily regulated forms of public transport you can possibly choose. But 113 years ago, when the Wright brothers were making their first few powered flights, it was quite the opposite.
It was mad science with a dash of backyard engineering and men with an incredible willingness to put their bodies and lives on the line. These guys were taking the ultimate bet: either our calculations are right, our designs are superior and our workmanship is solid, or else we fall from a great height and die like others have before us.
This cavalier spirit is still among us, and we're seeing a lot of cojones on display among a new generation of fearless engineers who see manned multirotors as the key to personal flight.
Watching these guys take to the sky is a white-knuckle armchair ride. Take this latest effort from a do-it-yourself enthusiast in Sweden. His flying platform uses eight petrol motors on a tube-framed lattice structure that carries a lightweight, boxy chair.
Yes, combustion engines. The benefits of combustion engines versus the more common electric motor would include … pretty much just the ability to carry lots of fuel and refuel quickly.
The drawbacks? Well, a huge increase in mechanical complexity, flammable liquid on board, lots of heat, and the simple fact that gas engines are poorly suited to the job of stabilizing a flying platform. They're comparatively slow to respond to throttle inputs, which is a big deal when you've got a flight controller trying to make hundreds of speed adjustments a second to keep the thing horizontal in the air. Plus, throttle adjustments generate different amounts of power depending on how fast they're running, due to the fact that gas engines have weird power output curves.
Still, our mystery Swedish engineer has gone through a number of iterations of his flight platform, including one about five months ago which suffered an engine failure, pitched off into the trees and made a fair old wreck of itself. Luckily he was flying it remotely when that happened, because several heavy-duty props went flying in several different directions.
Unable to help himself, by his own admission, he's now rebuilt the craft and in the last couple of weeks he's posted new videos that show him sitting in the thing and flying it at heights up to around 15 feet. "It's a really nice flight feeling," he tells the camera, "you can really feel that you're up in a thin medium."
It looks for all the world like a flying carpet, and it makes one heck of a racket, so he appears to be doing the responsible thing by his neighbors and taking it way out into the middle of nowhere to fly it – alone. He's hitting record on his own video camera, so presumably if something goes wrong, there's nobody around to scoop his vital organs and loose extremities into a shopping bag and get him to hospital.
Godspeed, you wonderful, joyous dreamer. Fly on, and may your big end bearings and piston rings remain intact.
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