People have been trying to fly by flapping their arms (with wings strapped on) since at least the 11th century. It took Leonardo da Vinci to work out that our arms aren’t strong enough in proportion to our bodies for us to take to the air, whatever wing-like apparatus we’ve trussed ourselves up in.
Human ingenuity, however, has enabled us to recreate natural flight in miniature. Model birds that can fly, known as ornithopters, have been around since the 19th century. Most have just been jeux d’esprit, but hawk models have been used to chase birds away from airports and they could have a surveillance use.
But this radio-controlled giant insect, MetaFly, from a startup in Marseilles, is not only the first ornithopter I have ever featured, but is perhaps the most frightening looking product I have seen. With its tissue paper-thin carbon-fibre and polymer wings flapping at near insect speed, it’s akin to a vision from hell, sounds horrifying – and I love it for all that. There are a few ornithopters on the market, but only a couple are radio-controlled and none that I could find takes the form of an insect.
MetaFly is technically a drone, although at less than 10g in weight, it’s not the kind that needs a permit to fly in the UK – only drones above 250g require licensing. You can release MetaFly outdoors on a very calm day and reach 20kph over 100m range, flapping and gliding – more like a bird than an insect – for eight minutes on a 12-minute charge. Control is precise, if an acquired art, but with MetaFly’s ridiculous lightness, a crash is rarely damaging. It’s also fine flying indoors, but you need a huge room to fly successfully.
To build a motorised radio-controlled machine, with a decorative insect head for terrifying visual effect, at well under half an ounce is a magnificent feat of strange Gallic engineering. Assembly is tricky, and requires patience and strict adherence to the detailed video instructions on Vimeo – livened up amusingly for me by distinctly French ambulance sirens in the background at one point, possibly coming to take the inventors away. Even when it’s not flying, it’s a great display piece. And the same company also makes a MetaBird, which I am looking forward to trying.