Among the many inventions found in Italian Renaissance’ master Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbook was his famous drawing of a human-powered helicopter. Many failed attempts have been made to make da Vinci’s drawing a reality, but a team from the University of Maryland may be getting close. They have recently unofficially achieved a new record, keeping a human-powered helicopter hovering just over a foot off the ground for approximately 50 seconds.
This feat makes the students one of only three teams to have ever even achieved any flight in a human-powered helicopter at all. A video of the flight is available from the University of Maryland.
According to The Atlantic’s Brian Resnick, the helicopter is named “Gamera II”, after the flying monster turtle of Japanese films and the university’s terrapin mascot, and is built of lightweight carbon fiber rods, with strength lent from the team’s own “micro truss” system of design. With this advanced composition, the sprawling craft weighs only 75 pounds unmanned. With four massive rotors spreading out from the pilot’s seat in the center, the craft resembles the B-movie devices which inspired its name.
The rotors are moved by simple human leg-power, as the pilot pushes, bicycle-like, against pedals which transfer motion to the broad but lightweight blades. The team notes that, unlike an airplane, which can make use of its forward motion to help generate lift, a helicopter has to lift itself directly into the air against gravity.
The team is pursuing the $250,000 prize offered by the American Helicopter Society, through its Sikorsky Human-Powered Helicopter Competition. In the competition’s 30-year existence, it has yet to be won. In order to be successful, an entry must fly for at least 60 seconds, three meters above the ground, while remaining within a 10 by 10 meter square.
The team, composed of 35 University of Maryland engineering students, note that in addition to achieving the Sikorsky prize, real benefits come simply from tackling all of the challenges that arise during such a project. The team’s project manager William Staruk told The Atlantic, “No one’s ever going to use our helicopter for a practical use. The value of the project is mostly in the education aspect.”
Human-powered flight, despite its difficulty, is a feat that humans have been working on for years. In 2011, the Guardian’s Jonathan Sale chronicled 50 years of human-powered flight. He wrote about Derek Piggott’s flight in the Southampton University Man Powered Aircraft in 1961 and also talked about the Royal Aeronautical Society’s plan to hold a rally of human-powered aircraft in July 2012 prior to the London Olympics.
The talented team of University of Maryland students would probably contend that Piggott had an inherent advantage because an airplane can generate lift by moving forward while a helicopter has to rise vertically into the air, fighting gravity the entire time. A helicopter rotor pushes air downwards, which causes the helicopter to rise.
For now, the team is waiting for verification from the National Aeronautic Association of their latest flight, which will break their own previous world record of 11.4 seconds.
MSNBC reports that the University of Maryland team isn’t the only group pursuing the $250,000 prize offered by the American Helicopter Society. Aero Velo is using Kickstarter to fund the development of Atlas, the human-powered helicopter with which the team hopes to claim the lucrative prize. Aero Velo has a budget of $170,000, but they hope that $30,000 of that cost will be defrayed by Kickstarter pledges.