Monday, 27 August 2012 11:53
August 27, 2012
Man has always been fascinated with the possibilities and challenges of flight. From the moment that Leonardo Di Vinci started scrawling his designs for human-powered flying machines to the sight of massive rockets breaking free from the shackles of gravity, the desire to be airborne has formed a part of engineering research.
For some, the challenge is not to cover vast distances in their transport but to prove that vertical take off can be achieved purely using the energies of a human operator. According to the Toronto Star, a team of engineers from Canada are hoping to make that dream a reality.
Every year, the American Helicopter Society offers a prize of $250,000 to any team that can fly a human-powered helicopter for at least 60 seconds and reach a height of three metres at least once during that time period. Named after the Russian-American pioneer, the Igor I. Sikorsky Prize has been available to aerial engineers for 32 years and, to date, has been awarded to precisely zero participants.
Eyes on the prize
The closest that any team has got to the money came in 1994, when a team managed to get their contraption off the ground, but AeroVelo, the Toronto-based team taking part in this year's competition, is confident that their project, codenamed Atlas, may be the one to scoop the award.
Painfully aware that nobody has ever managed to win the Sikorsky, their pursuit of perfection is driven on by the knowledge that a team from the University of Maryland successfully flew a vertical takeoff machine for 49 seconds in June, setting a U.S. record for human-powered flight at the same time.
"We would definitely like to be first," said Cameron Robertson, Atlas’ 25-year-old chief structural engineer. "The fact that there has been this competition is really a driver. We’ve been keeping a closer eye on (Maryland). We can’t afford mistakes."
The machine will be piloted by Todd Reichart, the engineering project manager, who can generate 772 watts of power by sitting on a bicycle. The speed of his pedalling will determine how fast the rotor blades will spin and how quickly Atlas can rise into the air.
The blades use aerodynamic force, rotating with enough speed to push air towards the ground and achieving elevation. Computer sensors embedded in the framework measure the tension exerted on the materials used to construct the machine and predict at what level Atlas might break.
"We know exactly when all these structures are going to break,” said Reichert. "If they’re stronger than they need to be, they’re way too heavy. This entire aircraft has a small factor of safety, but everything is very, very close to breaking."
This is the first time in the history of the competition that two teams have come close to claiming the prize. While the team behind Atlas have been extremely secretive about their machine, the engineers from Maryland have been posting regular updates about their progress online, helped of course by the fact that their human-powered device, Gemara II, has already made a public, and record-breaking, appearance.
"If (AeroVelo is) smart and they can pick up what we’ve done, then they deserve to be number one; I don’t think we ever thought about competition," remarked Inderjit Chopra, director of the university’s Alfred Gessow Rotorcraft Center.
If successful, AeroVelo will use the money to fund other aviation engineering projects but the team believes that their work will inspire other aviators to think about the possibilities of efficient transportation.
"Engineering is the pursuit of just good enough," says Robertson said. "With (Atlas), it’s also the pursuit of perfection."
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