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Just over a year ago, a business trip took me to the University of Maryland. In an old gymnasium above where developers and designers were working on a website, a new record was being made in air flight.
The Gamera II, a human-powered helicopter designed and built by the Alfred Gessow Rotocraft Center in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, succeeded in staying aloft for 49.9 seconds. After verification from the FAA, that stood as the longest flight duration of such a craft until Maryland topped itself with a new best of 65.1 seconds a couple months later.
The one-minute time barrier constitutes half of the key criteria for a grand challenge issued in 1980, in the name of helicopter pioneer Igor Sikorsky. Overseen by the American Helicopter Society (AHS), the Sikorsky Prize also requires the copter to reach a 3-meter altitude, a goal Gamera II almost achieved last September. To win the Sikorsky Prize, however, both criteria must be met in the same flight, within a controlled 10×10 meter box.
Almost a year after the 50-second flight I witnessed, a team from Canada—AeroVelo’s Atlas—made claims on both categories. Though two related records (duration in hover and distance) are not yet verified by the FAA, the AHS announced Thursday that the Atlas flight of June 13 was legit, laying claim to the 33-year-old prize.
What makes the effort even more wonderful is that the craft was funded by the masses, yet another example of the Kickstarter community embracing science and aerospace projects. AeroVelo managed to quietly get $34K from almost 500 backers the same week the Gamera II was making its 50-second flight. From the Sky Cube (launching this fall) to a new solar sail project, crowdsourcing is helping science get off the ground.
Coupled with the roadmap charted by the Maryland team, that Kickstarter money may have made the difference. As reported in Popular Mechanics:
Unlike Atlas, however, Gamera had not been originally designed with a control system, so its pilots struggled in vain to keep it within the mandated 10-meter square. Add-on control systems seemed to address the problem at the expense of overall performance, and to bring the team no closer to its goal.
At 190 feet and only 115 pounds, the Atlas is larger than any operational helicopter ever constructed. It made its first flight in August of last year.
Sikorsky, an established Russian aviation expert, came to the U.S. in 1919 to “construct aircraft.” Four years later, he had established the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation. Helicopters were his first love, having built a failed one in 1909 that started his aviation career. Sikorsky Aircraft built their first working helicopter in 1939, setting a string of records on their way to mass production. Igor Sikorsky died in 1972, still on the job.
With an attitude Sikorsky himself would certainly applaud, UMD’s congratulations to AeroVelo pointed out that, though this grand challenge has been met, the next barriers will continue to push engineers to new heights. Maryland reached 10.8 feet in a flight and established a new unofficial duration world record (74 seconds) in late June. A third team from California Polytechnic State University was also pursuing the Sikorsky Prize, with the Upturn II aircraft using a single-rotor design. The AHS announced plans to issue a new challenge for human-powered helicopters in the future. With the teams inspiring each other, it will be interesting to see how high they go in 2014.