Jaren Wilkey, BYU
BYU student Jeff Hogge displays an "ornithopter" in action.

PROVO — "The Da Vinci Code" finally opens in theaters today, but another da Vinci-related drama will be on display Saturday only in Saratoga Springs.

More than 500 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci conducted the first serious study of bird flight and proposed an ornithopter, an aircraft powered by flapping wings.

Da Vinci's drawings called for a huge machine designed to support a man who would work the wings using a system of pulleys. Unless Dan Brown, author of "The Da Vinci Code," knows something the rest of us don't, it's impossible to know exactly what da Vinci would think of the miniature, radio-controlled ornithopters built by students at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah.

NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratory are sponsoring the 10th annual Micro Air Vehicles Competition at the Utah Valley Aeromodelers Flying Field near Saratoga Springs. Teams from BYU and the U. will compete against other schools from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. for $4,000 in prize money.

The odd-looking ornithopters are nearly as strange as their name.

"I didn't know what the word was two years ago," said Eric Johnson, 24, a U. graduate student in mechanical engineering. "Anybody who sees us flying it around always wonders what in the world that is up there. I was surprised when I found out there is a hobbyist niche for these things already."

There's also a military surveillance niche.

Flapping wings are better options for small surveillance aircraft because of their maneuverability.

"Fixed-wing vehicles fly long distances, but they can't land on a tree branch, while an ornithopter potentially can," Johnson said. "An ornithopter could fly through a cave, into a building, land on a filing cabinet and fly out again."

"Theoretically speaking," BYU professor and team adviser Jerry Bowman said, "ornithopters can stop and hover like a dragonfly, making them much more versatile."

But, he said, "we're a long ways away from that still. Too bad, huh?"

Saturday's competition, which is open to the public, reflects some of the possible military uses for ornithopters and fixed-wing micro air vehicles (MAV). The four events include a surveillance test that will measure which planes successfully transmit video from the air to home base, an endurance/distance test, a design competition and a competition for the smallest radio-controlled ornithopter.

BYU won the Micro Air Vehicles competition in 2002, the last time it was held in Utah, but the ornithopter category is a new one.

BYU's team has developed a fixed-wing MAV that weighs about as much as a penny. A MAV costs about $1,500 to make, mostly because of the video cameras necessary for navigation and surveillance.

The ornithopters built by BYU and U. students resemble birds more convincingly than da Vinci's designs.

"It's fun to watch them fly because they appear like birds," Bowman said. "I've seen videos of ornithopters that run out of power and land, and a bird approaches it and tries to coax back into flight."

Constructing an ornithopter presents excellent educational challenges, said Mike French, a BYU senior from Beaverton, Ore.

"With a conventional airplane, the propeller provides the thrust and the wings provide the lift, but with an ornithopter, the wings provide both the thrust and the lift," French said. "This makes it harder to design and build an ornithopter because you can't modify the two components needed for flight in isolation. Any little change you make to an ornithopter affects both components."

The flying field is near the place where the Jordan River connects with Utah Lake. For more specific directions, visit www.utahvalleyaeromodelers.com/field/map.html.

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