Bognor’s birdman

While ‘eco-friendly’ engineering projects focus on developments in hybrid vehicles and fuel cells, one of the most environmentally sound instant energy sources – manpower – goes to waste.

We’re running out of oil, wasting our water, wrecking the planet and getting lazy. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the Green message.

Engineers can ignore or deny it. Yet some find that these challenges have their own intellectual rewards, using their refined problem-solving skills to ameliorate the impact their projects have on the environment.

There’s an unspoken beauty contest between ‘eco-friendly’ programmes. At the glamorous cutting edge are developments in hybrid vehicles and fuel cells. Wind turbines and ocean power also have high profiles. And every engineering project worth its salt includes maximising energy efficiency while minimising materials. But there’s one resource that is largely overlooked by even the greatest thinkers even though it stares them in the face whenever they shave, apply lipstick, or both. It’s human power.

Biological brawn doesn’t seem to appear on the radar of engineers who claim to be friends of the earth. Machines can do so much more than mere muscle that human power is simply not considered, even though it is the most environmentally sound instant energy source we have at our disposal. This is not a plea for a return to the Mesolithic era, before even animals were harnessed to work for us. But there is an argument for making more use of the physical abilities and strengths of homo sapiens. Three events this week show what’s possible.

The most trivial, apparently, is the Birdman contest, in which mere mortals try to fly 100m off Bognor Regis pier. Among the fancy dress costumes and comedy superheroes on Sunday was a modified high-performance hang glider designed, built and flown by Tony Hughes, a microlight instructor and former RAF pilot from Wiltshire. He took first prize for gliding 82.5m before landing in the English Channel. He had replaced the standard 2.5mm wires on the wings with thinner ones to reduce drag.

Admittedly, the only human power he used was climbing the steps to the launchpad and shifting his weight during flight to keep his craft on course.

But Hughes has interesting plans for 2005. Always one to keep his cards close to his chest, he admitted that he’s going to start work with ‘a very clever aeronautical engineer’ to build a craft to break the 100m barrier next year. The microlights that Hughes flies professionally use powered propellers to keep them moving, so it is highly likely that he’ll introduce some kind of human-powered propulsion unit to claim the big Bognor prize next year. It may not be capable of flying to France, like the Gossamer Albatross did in 1979 but, if successful, it could perhaps spawn a new breed of small, agile, pedal-powered sports aircraft.

On the same day that Hughes flew for 12.5 seconds along the Sussex coast, 180 athletes pedalled 125 miles on the first stage of the 2004 Tour de France. Their steeds are sophisticated feats of engineering, incorporating advanced materials, microelectronics, telemetry and aerodynamics. The riders need every technological assistance they can get during the three-week, 2,000 mile race. Last year the winning margin was a mere 61 seconds. But why has so little of the technology from such thoroughbred machines found its way into regular bicycles? It could help change the UK’s travel culture.

Every time we get into our cars the traffic reminds us that there are too many other cars on the road. The problem would seem to be that although pedal power is ideal for many journeys it is perceived as being far less comfortable than driving. It’s about time someone came up with a luxury recumbent that’s weather-proof, efficient and fitted with an in-bike audio centre with satellite navigation and multiple CD-changer.

Progress is notoriously slow, despite its undoubted virtues. Five hundred years ago Leonardo da Vinci sketched chain links, like those used on bicycles, but nobody bothered with them for centuries.Likewise his hang glider plans were ignored until the 20th century.

And this week a team of Italian craftsmen have finally got round to building the first version of a human-powered car that he designed in 1478.

As Leonardo didn’t have access to batteries, motors, engines or computers – he came up with solutions that used the human body to do the work. But the potential of muscle power is not valued by contemporary engineers and designers. Manual labour is looked down on, even though athletic prowess is rewarded with monstrous sums of money, and fitness centres thrive.

Who is going to be first to complete the circle by making exercise bikes and rowing machines that power gymnasium lighting? Or will the human-powered renaissance only flourish when our oil has gone, our water is toxic and we’re too obese to move?

Max Glaskin is a freelance technology writer.