UM students' human-powered helicopter becomes airborne
Engineering students at the University of Maryland are claiming a world record after successfully lofting their human-powered Gamera helicopter a few inches above a gymnasium floor Thursday afternoon at the Comcast Center in College Park.
The flight came during the team's final attempt, after two days of tests and near-misses. But just before 5:30 p.m., with pilot Judy Wexler, 24, pedaling furiously with her hands and feet, the gangly craft's rotors bent and pulled Gamera perhaps a foot into the air. In seconds it was over.
"Not even a question. We don't have to review the videotape. ? Absolutely amazing," said team leader Brandon Bush, 29. It wasn't immediately clear how long Gamera was airborne, or how high it got.
More than 30 years ago, the American Helicopter Society International challenged engineers to create a human-powered helicopter that could reach an altitude of at least three meters and hover for at least 60 seconds. In 1980, Sikorsky Aircraft promised $20,000 to the winner.
So far, no one has succeeded and claimed what?s now called the Sikorsky Award. There have been attempts: In 1989, students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo built a helicopter that hovered for 7.1 seconds. In 1994, students at Nihon University in Japan flew a helicopter for 19.46 seconds.
In December 2008, Pines held a meeting with students and faculty to announce that the Maryland school would take on the elusive challenge. Soon after, Sikorsky upped the prize to $250,000.
For the next year, a team of 50 students researched past attempts, sketched out ideas and tested small-scale models. They settled on a design similar to the one used in Japan: a lightweight X-shaped frame with a set of rotor blades at each point, and the pilot suspended in a cockpit in the middle.
Last year, the students studied the extreme ground effects of hovering and decided that the closer they kept to the ground, the more suspension help their helicopter would get.
?It?s like when you hold your hand in front of a fan,? said Mor Gilad, 28, an aerospace master?s degree student. The closer your hand gets to the fan, the harder the air pressure pushes against it.
The students began constructing and testing segments of the craft, using balsa wood, foam, Mylar, carbon fiber and other lightweight materials. They also recruited potential pilots ? small, athletic types with lots of patience.
The students decided they wanted to fly before commencement, which is next week, and booked a small gym in the Comcast Center. Last week, they began assembling and testing the helicopter, named Gamera, after the gigantic flying turtle in 1970s Japanese monster films.
Here?s how Gamera was supposed to work Wednesday morning: The pilot, a 107-pound female student who is a competitive cyclist, would climb into the cockpit. She?d pedal hand and foot cranks at a steady pace, winding up the yellow rope attached to pulleys that turn the rotor blades. Once she reached 17 to 18 rotations per minute, Gamera would lift off.
?The hard part is finding the right acceleration,? said Judy Wexler, 24, a biology major from Bethesda who responded to a flier advertising for a pilot. ?If you go too quickly, you can break something. . . .Too slowly, you waste energy.?
After the break, the students and a smaller crowd returned for another round of test flights. Wexler had reached more than 16 rotations per minute late Wednesday; the team called it a day. Testing is to resume at 11 a.m. Thursday.
?If we even get off the ground at all, we?ll be number three,? said Brandon Bush, 29, an aerospace doctoral student. ?We just have to get off the ground.?
?I?m convinced that we can do it,? Pines said. ?To me this is . . .inspiring our kids, showing them that they can be the next aviation pioneers. Just like the Wright brothers.?