Canadian Group Wins $250,000 Prize For Human-Powered Helicopter.

CITED FROM WIRED – The Canadian AeroVelo team has done what many thought impossible. The crew has officially claimed the American Helicopter Society’s Igor I. Sikorsky Human-Powered Helicopter Prize. And for keeping their lightweight contraption afloat, the team was awarded $250,000 in Toronto for the flight it completed on June 13. But meeting the criteria of a 33-year-old challenge takes time, so they had to wait for verification from the Federation d’Aviation Intenationale before the team could snag the prize.

Engineer Dr. Todd Reichert, along with Cameron Robertson, led the Kickstarter-funded team largely comprised of students from the University of Toronto. He was also the pilot and engine who successfully pedaled his way into aviation history by climbing above three meters and flying for at least 60 seconds while staying within a 10-by-10 meter area. Reichert, a nationally ranked speed skater in Canada, told us after so many flights and failures, the prize-winning attempt almost didn’t happen.

On June 13, after earlier flights reaching between 2 and 2.5 meters, AeroVelo only had enough time for one last attempt before they had to evacuate the indoor soccer facility where they have been flying before evening practices were set to start. And Reichert knew the biggest challenge would happen mid-flight.

“For us, the dangerous part is coming down from altitude,” he says of the time when the helicopter can get pulled into its own downwash. “Climbing is no problem — it’s in the time period between 15 and 40 seconds that is really tough.”

Once he managed to carefully descend from 3.3 meters, he had to keep pedaling while controlling the drifting aircraft.

“You’re throwing everything you have into it,” he said. But because of the control challenge, even after exceeding the 60-second requirement, there was no time to think about the prize in the final few seconds. “There is really zero thought of, ‘oh, I can do it.’ There is no feeling, only doing.”

The AHS first put up the challenge back in 1980 and since then more than 20 teams teams have designed and built human-powered helicopters in an attempt to win what was initially a $10,000 prize. Though only a few of those actually made it off the ground.

The competition heated up beginning in 2009 when Sikorsky Aircraft increased the prize to $250,000. Since then the Canadian AeroVelo team and Team Gamera from the University of Maryland have been in a tight battle to be the first to fly a human-powered helicopter to fit the stringent requirements set by Sikorsky.

“That is exactly why we raised the stakes,” Sikorsky’s Mark Miller said in a statement. “To encourage creative thinkers to prove that what is considered impossible is often proven to be possible.”

The AeroVelo Atlas uses a four-rotor system, with each blade spanning 67 feet. The carbon tube frame weighs just 115 pounds. And unlike the University of Maryland’s Gamera where the pilot/engine uses both legs and arms to power the aircraft, the Atlas uses a modified bicycle frame suspended from the helicopter by lightweight cord, with only the the pilot’s legs for power.

One of the challenges for both teams was finding an indoor space large enough to fly. AeroVelo first flew in August of last year, and since then has had to work around the schedule of the indoor soccer facility where they fly. With an overall width of 190 feet, the Atlas needs a lot of space for its slow-turning rotors.

The record-setting flight took place after a five-day testing sprint. Earlier this year flights ended with damage to the Atlas. Both Atlas and Gamera are extremely delicate and difficult to control, and for a while it seemed that the teams were set on an on/off schedule, with one team flying while the other was rebuilding.

Reichert says the prize is great, but it has always been about the challenge.

“It isn’t really about the prize,” he says. “It’s about satisfaction of finishing something that you have set yourself to.”

The students at the University of Maryland sent their congratulations to their competitors and fellow engineers at AeroVelo after learning about the team’s success.

“No one knows better than we do the enormously difficult engineering and human performance challenges that must be overcome in order to meet these flight requirements,” the team said in a statement. “We salute this historic accomplishment of the AeroVelo team and the intense dedication, innovation, research and hard work we know it required.”

Reichert and AeroVelo co-founder Cameron Robertson are continuing to work on new projects with students and the public.

“We want to use it as a platform to inspire people,” Reichert says, “more specifically to look at doing more with less.”

After flying the slow-moving helicopter, next up is something with a bit more speed. Reichert says they are working with students on a streamlined bicycle that can achieve highway speeds. It’s likely to elicit scoffs of disbelief from the cycling crowd, but a human-powered helicopter still sounds crazy, and he’s already checked that off the list. reports. iBlab, what do you do?.

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