Da Vinci Drone’s New Twist

The “aerial screw”—a human-powered flying machine—has graced a page of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous journals for over 500 years, but never got off the ground. Now, a modern spin on the design by University of Maryland aerospace engineering students and alums has allowed it to finally take flight.

At a Vertical Flight Society conference early this year, they unveiled their working prototype, Crimson Spin, which flies through the combined lift of four, whirring spiral-shaped blades.

The craft, which garnered broad interest from tech publications, was the culmination of more than two years’ work stemming from UMD’s winning graduate entry, Elico—derived from the common Italian root word for helicopter, propeller, helix and screw—in the society’s Leonardo-themed student design competition in 2020.

“The whole point of the competition was to evaluate whether this old, ancient concept could even work at all,” says Elico team member Ilya Semenov M.S. ’20.

After the win, Austin Prete M.S. ’22 spent the next year and a half creating a functional aircraft just over a foot across, based on the Elico design. “That first successful flight was an incredible moment,” he says. Among potential advantages the team discovered is less “downwash”—a blast of air that kicks up dirt and debris—than traditional copters.

Following the Spring 2022 graduation of the last Elico team members, Maryland engineering faculty plan to turn the project over to new generations of students, helping to give the Renaissance mastermind’s once-futuristic ideas a real future.


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