Students seek human-powered helicopter prize

In test flight after test flight, a group of students from the University of Maryland has labored for days to make an ungainly 115-foot-long helicopter fly three meters off the ground and hover for 60 seconds, powered only by a pilot pedaling like crazy.

It’s never been done before.

The reward: the $250,000 Sikorsky Prize. The engineering contest was dreamed up by the American Helicopter Society and Sikorsky Aircraft 33 long years ago after several successful man-powered airplane flights. But this man-powered helicopter challenge — which also involves hovering in a 10-meter square — has proven far more elusive, unintentionally.

It was never meant to be unattainable.

The competition’s developers said they would “start off with something easy, like taking off and hovering,” said Mike Hirschberg, the helicopter society’s executive director. “Well, 33 years later, it’s proved just how difficult that’s been.”

In 1989, Cal Poly students broke the flight record by hovering for 8.6 seconds. In 1994, a Japanese team had a flight of 19.46 seconds.

In 2008, graduate students from the University of Maryland Alfred Gessow Rotorcraft Center decided to take up the challenge. In July 2011, the first Maryland chopper, the Gamera, flew for 11.4 seconds.

The students have developed a new craft, the Gamera II, and hold world records for height and duration of flights. The craft has flown for more than 60 seconds and in August reached a height of 2.9 meters, or almost 9.4 feet.

“Almost all of our colleagues, everyone in our industry said that was not possible, not feasible,” Inder Chopra, the faculty adviser of the project, said of the height. “Now it looks like people think it is feasible.”

The challenge is putting height, duration and control together in a single flight. A new control system was added to the Gamera II to enable the pilot to essentially steer the aircraft to keep it within the 10-meter square.

One of the most difficult elements is finding a place for test flights. Elizabeth Weiner, a graduate student who has been working on the project for two years, said the footprint of the University of Maryland craft is larger than that of a Blackhawk 60 helicopter.

Fifty-one students working on the project have toiled since Wednesday in a 32,000-square-foot exhibit hall in the Baltimore Convention Center.

Increasing competition from other teams has heightened the urgency for a successful flight. AeroVelo, a team in Toronto, is testing every two weeks, said Benjamin Hein of Sikorsky. Its craft has had flights of five feet and 30 seconds unofficially.

“Right now, it’s this neck-and-neck race between us and the Canadians in terms of achieving this,” Weiner said. “It’s stressful.”

She said that when their Canadian counterparts test every other Friday, Maryland team members constantly check for online updates, making sure no records have been broken. “We’ve been doing this for so long, and we’re really close,” she said. “We don’t want to be beat out at this point.”

Confidence was high Wednesday as the team prepped test flights, making small adjustments to the rotors. Team members said they thought the prize was within their reach.

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