Leonardo Da Vinci’s Flying Machine Takes to the Sky as a Drone

A quadcopter drone that uses ancient technology instead of modern propellers made a huge impression at the recent Transformative Vertical Flight conference. University of Maryland graduate student Austin Prete made the remotely operated vehicle, called Crimson Spin. It has four aerial screws instead of modern propellers. Leonardo da Vinci sketched something similar more than 500 years ago. And the same principle is behind the bamboo-copter toy invented in China at least 1,000 years before that. Now the concept has a 21st century prototype.

As spotted at Gizmodo, the Crimson Spin is the next generation of a prototype that won the Vertical Flight Society’s student design contest in 2020. A group of University of Maryland students, including Prete, won that year’s theme to put da Vinci’s design to the test.

The society was founded in 1943, shortly after the invention of the first helicopter. It is committed to advancing VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) technologies. The conference attracts representatives from the aerospace industry, military, and universities, as well as NASA and the FAA. The technology is constantly advancing, creating new uses for drones, from light shows to finding animals in need of rescue.

Page of Leonardo da Vinci's manuscript describing the aerial screw flying machine
Luc Viatour, via Wikimedia Commons

Da Vinci’s model requires people to spin the rotor while riding it. Many questions about the physics required remain. He may have tested small versions but the lack of lightweight materials to achieve lift kept the idea on the page for hundreds of years.

Crimson Spin uses electricity to spin the aerial screws, which lift and maneuver the drone. In fact, the screws rotate fewer times to create the same lift as a traditional rotor. This could correspond to less downwash, the potentially damaging wind you see when a helicopter hovers. The team at University of Maryland continues to study this and other possible advances in VTOL technology.

Crimson Spin, a quadcopter with four rotating sails instead of propellers
University of Maryland

Prete and the other graduate students who worked on this project have earned their degrees and are moving on with their careers. The project continues but will need more funding to scale up the prototype and explore its potential uses. Getting another of Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machines off the ground could greatly benefit society.

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