University of Maryland students close in on the human-powered helicopter prize.
- By Paul Glenshaw
- Air & Space magazine, January 2013
(Page 2 of 3)
In the small but energized world of human-powered vehicles, word of Gamera spread quickly. At that point, the team decided to publicize their efforts, posting videos on YouTube and inviting the media to their tests. None of it was lost on Cameron Robertson and Todd Reichert in Ontario, Canada. In 2010, they’d realized their own graduate student ambitions by creating and flying a human-powered ornithopter. In January, they established a group called AeroVelo to further explore the possibilities of human-powered vehicles. Inspired by Gamera and enticed by the prize, the two tackled a human-powered helicopter. Reichert would be the co-designer/engineer and the pilot. Based on their experience with the ornithopter, they were able to compress their development of a human-powered helicopter to five months.
As the Gamera team reviewed every aspect of their own design, they decided to build a whole new helicopter, with better transmission, more efficient rotors, and a lighter structure. They also learned that Neal Saiki, the first successful human-powered helicopter pilot, had begun his own pursuit of the Sikorsky Prize. His experience focused his approach: “It’s not so much the getting off the ground—it’s the stability,” says Saiki. His new ship was named Upturn. The race was on.
Gamera had taught its creators all it could, and the vehicle was set aside. After witnessing that first flight, I began working with the team to create an exhibit about the 2011 flights and the engineering challenge of a human-powered helicopter for the College Park Aviation Museum. The star of the exhibit is one of Gamera’s rotors, suspended from the ceiling. The helicopter had become a museum piece, and the students were fine with that. Its successor was well under way.
Gamera II came to life as computers crunched design and performance parameters, and the team made some big changes. They simplified the structure and slashed weight by using far more “baby” trusses, which had formed only part of the first Gamera’s structure. To provide more lift, they designed longer, tapered rotors with stiffer spars. And they added a flywheel to synchronize and smooth the formerly jerky pedaling done by the pilot’s hands and feet.
Up in Ontario, the AeroVelo team (populated mostly by volunteer students from the University of Toronto) christened their project Atlas and forged their own way. Also adopting the quad-rotor design, they incorporated the lightest known bicycle frame on the market. But to catch Gamera II, Atlas would have to hurry. As the summer of 2012 approached, the Atlas team began working around the clock, racing to get their first flights in before the end of August. Gamera II was already completed, with plenty of spare parts.
By now, the Gamera team had experienced a considerable ebb and flow: Older students departed, and younger ones joined. The team’s goal for its next flights was clear. “They had no intention of going for the prize,” says Pines. “None. Zip. Zero. They were just going to go for the [60-second] time.”
The new vehicle did not disappoint. Compared to its predecessor, Gamera II leapt into the air. In late June 2012, with an official observer from the National Aeronautic Association on hand, it turned in a series of record-destroying duration flights: 20, 35, 40, then 49.9 seconds (the last flown by Kyle Glusenkamp, and another official world record). Yuri-I’s 18-year reign was over; the 60-second mark was in view. A set of unofficial flights, some tethered, began to explore altitude, and Gamera II began to climb past three, then four feet.
Moving to a larger facility off campus in late August, the team improved the helicopter, extending the rotor blades and stiffening their tips. On August 28, I arrived at the indoor track in time to see Colin Gore make a duration attempt. He began pedaling, lifting easily into the air. As the blades spun, a familiar silence and tension descended; he kept flying, far longer than anything before. After an astonishing 65 seconds, he came down gently.
For the first time, a Sikorsky Prize marker had fallen. Once again, there were cheers, group photos, and elevated adrenaline. And then, later that afternoon, it was Henry Enerson’s turn to fly.
Enerson was an incoming freshman; he hadn’t yet attended his first class. A track athlete and rock climber, he also weighed 10 pounds less than Gore or Glusenkamp. He had already made a few flights, getting used to this new form of exertion. Now he was going to make an altitude attempt. Elizabeth Weiner, the team member who manages the pilots, half-jokingly turned herself into a human altimeter with brightly colored stripes taped across her jeans and shirt at one-foot intervals, so the others could get a quick measure of how Enerson did. Just for laughs, she taped her arms so that, stretched up, they could mark six feet.
Before Enerson’s flight, the team had the growing sense that the project might be reaching its limit. They’d set out to hit the one-minute mark, and that had just toppled. Pines and Chopra had discussed what appeared to be a threshold for how high Gamera II could go: somewhere above four feet. Enerson shocked them all.
Weiner stood next to the cockpit as Enerson began to pedal, tentatively holding one arm up in case he got higher than her waist. In seconds, he shot up over her head, then her completely outstretched arm. Enerson kept going—all the way to eight feet. Will Staruk shouted out the order to come down. After drifting backward for several feet, Enerson landed.
The gym erupted. Weiner collapsed to the floor in amazement. “We were in a state of shock,” says Pines. “How was he able to do that? What just happened?”