Bicycle Helicopter Pilot From Canada Wins $250,000 Prize
Michael Harper for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
A Canadian team has just won $250,000 for successfully defying gravity with a bicycle-powered helicopter.
Though scientists had long thought the feat to be impossible, the American Helicopter Society (AHS) began offering the prize money to anyone who could lift themselves in the air using only human muscle. The prize had been unclaimed since the Igor I Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition first began in 1980, 33 years ago.
To win the prize, the team of engineers at the University of Toronto had to hover above ground at a height of more than nine feet for more than 60 seconds. While in flight, the vehicle must remain in an area of 32 feet by 32 feet. The team successfully completed the flight on June 13.
It has taken the AHS nearly a month to decide if the aircraft had met all the correct specifications.
Engineer Dr. Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson led the team, largely staffed by University of Toronto students. Together they built the Atlas, a flying machine made up of four 65-foot long rotors and powered by a bicycle in the middle. Each of the components are held together by lightweight, carbon fiber tubes. The long, slow spinning rotors were inspired by the Gossamer Albatross — the human-powered aircraft that crossed the English Channel in 1979. The airfoils are made of expanded polystyrene foam and balsa wood and held together with carbon fiber tubing and wire. Each rotor is covered with Mylar plastic film, making them transparent.
Dr. Reichert piloted the Atlas by pedaling the bicycle and spinning the giant blades. As each of the giant blades began to spin, the Atlas slowly rose to a height of ten feet. In an interview with Wired, Reichert explained that though the team had been working for many months to earn the 33 year-old prize, their successful flight was almost delayed due to scheduled practice which was set to take place in the soccer arena where the team was flying the Atlas. In addition to being rushed for time, Reichert also said the biggest problems for the team in earlier, lower altitude tests came mid-flight.
“For us, the dangerous part is coming down from altitude,” said the world record-setting pilot, noting the Atlas tended to get pulled down in its own downward force of pressure. “Climbing is no problem — it’s in the time period between 15 and 40 seconds that is really tough.”
Mike Hirschberg, the executive director of the AHS, said there had been many scientific studies which claimed it was impossible for a human to power a helicopter like Reichert had. At the presentation ceremony last Thursday, Hirschberg said, “Several studies ‘proved’ it was, in fact, scientifically impossible.
“Well, it took a third of a century to prove those skeptics wrong. It took that long for the state of the art of vertical flight to see significant technological advances in lightweight structures, computer-aided design, aeromechanics, and multidisciplinary design optimization,” he explained to The Guardian.
Two other teams were vying for the The Igor I Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter prize and lost: teams from the University of Maryland in College Park and California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. The AHS plans to offer “another grand challenge” in the future.