This flying drone was designed by Leonardo da Vinci

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Image: Austin Prete/University of Maryland

Leonardo da Vinci is known for such works as Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, but you may not know that in the 1480s, hundreds of years before the first flight of an airplane, a scientist sketched out the design of an airship. Lacking the right materials Da Vinci never built or tested a helicopter-like device, which led us to wonder if this first mock-up could even gain altitude.

And the answer is yes, it can. A team of engineers from the University of Maryland used da Vinci’s sketches to build a functional drone for an flying machine competition (via CNET). Called the Crimson Spin, the device is a small unmanned quadcopter with wings inspired by da Vinci’s “propeller” design, which used the concept archimedes screw push off the air to fly.

The drone has four corkscrew-shaped plastic wings, but instead of someone spinning (or inflating) them by hand, as da Vinci suggested, these wings are powered by batteries and electric motors. Like modern drones, this creation is based on small changes in the speed of rotation of the propeller to tilt in one direction or another. Creating a single axle structure, as shown in da Vinci’s sketches, would have been much more difficult and would have required some of the technology used in today’s helicopters.

Austin Prete, who is part of the project’s engineering team and built the Crimson Spin for his master’s degree, made several short flights with the device and presented the first video of the aircraft’s flight in the conference Transforming vertical flight.

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“I was very surprised that it worked,” Prete, a graduate student in the university’s aerospace engineering department, told CNET. He says the plane creates a vortex of warped air at the edge of each wing, which curls down and creates upward thrust.

We may well never fly a 530-year-old helicopter, but this project came about as the use of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft generated interest due to their ability to deliver packages or be used as taxi planes. The unique aerodynamics of the Crimson Spin solves some of the many problems that face VTOL in the sense that it creates less downdraft and is probably quieter than conventional propellers.

This working propeller is a small drone about the size of a regular DJI, but Prete believes it can be improved through “geometry optimization and performance studies in various flight modes” and can also be enlarged to carry a passenger. Although he won’t be working on it anymore (he’s accepted a position in industry), Prete thinks research can continue at the University of Maryland as long as there’s interest and funding.

“This could lead to a practical floating machine capable of increasing human carrying capacity, but I don’t think it will be used in today’s enterprise projects until more research is done on functionality, reliability and performance. However, it can eventually operate in the same positions as the rotors in the channel,” Prete said. Gizmodo.

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