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Old and New: Human Powered Flight

[ 0 ] Posted by on August 22, 2012

human flight

Helicopters are some of the most interesting and complex air vehicles in use today, carrying out daily tasks across a multitude of industries. The mechanics behind them are overwhelming, as there thousands of moving parts that all contribute to the intricate balance that must be maintained. A loss of the tail rotor, for example, will be a loss in the counter torque provided to balance out the forces of the main blades, thus throwing it off balance. Powerful engines are installed to give the right amount of power needed to sustain flight and act against the forces of flight. However, a new source of power may be available to these machines: humans. Surprisingly enough, engineers have been experimenting with the idea of human powered helicopters as a concept that could be used in the future.

The Challenge

Of course, humans replacing the powerful engines driving the various rotors is one of the toughest challenges for aerospace engineers. “Humans have very low power output for their weight, so the pilot must be extremely strong and fit, yet light” (FastCoDesign). In addition to having the right person for the machine, the helicopter itself must be built a certain way to be light enough for air time. For example, the Gamera helicopter created by engineering students at the University of Mayland weighs about 210 pounds; its weight is distributed over a large space to optimize the lift force. Because of the fact that helicopters must achieve lift exactly from a state of rest, building a human powered machine is fairly difficult.

As the project of building such a helicopter poses a huge challenge for everyone, various engineers have been interested in testing their designs for the ultimate goal: to stay in the air for 60 seconds with a height of 3 meters. The Sikorsky Prize, established in 1980, holds these conditions to be met for the prize of $250,000. The hefty prize will certainly make the efforts worth it for the engineer who take up the challenge. However, since the time of the challenge, only three crafts have been managed to get some sort of lift off the ground, showing that the ultimate goal requires the best innovations to achieve it.

Current Efforts

The Gamera mentioned before has been the most successful craft of the challenge, as the most recent update engineering students made for the craft boosted flight time to 50 seconds at a height about 4 feet, a fairly close attempt to the challenge conditions (Dailymail). At the moment, this is the best effort put forth for the challenge, and they are still continuing to develop their machine to improve its performance.

Despite Gamera’s good efforts, other engineers are excited to build their designs to beat all others. The Atlas machine devised by Cameron Robertson and Todd Reichert could prove to achieve the goals of the challenge. Fortunately for their group, the Atlas project was successful in raising the funds needed by posting it on Kickstarter, a website dedicated to funding a wide range of projects. Hopes are high for the team as they expect their design to be capable of achieving the results needed. The group expects to have it built and tested for flight sometime in late August or September (PopularMechanics).

This article was written by Karl Stockton for the team at Grand Canyon Helicopter Tours.

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