A team of 40 researchers and students at the University of Maryland’s Department of Aerospace Engineering set a new world record for a flight time set by a human-powered helicopter. Actually, they destroyed it — an earlier Maryland team, Gamera I, had set the record of 11.4 seconds, but this Gamera II crew designed a newer and lighter helicopter that scored amazing results. Last week the Gamera II was aloft for 50 seconds. The record, for now, is unofficial until the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) verifies it in the coming weeks.
The students’ inspiration is the Sikorsky Prize, a $250,000 reward that the American Helicopter Society International (AHS) established in 1980. Still unclaimed, the prize will go to the first controlled flight of a human powered helicopter that stays airborne for 60 seconds, reaches an altitude of three meters (10 feet) and stays within a 10 square meters (33 square feet) space. For decades the elusive prize not not only been attainable, but near impossible. University of Maryland’s success in just one year, however, could lead to that prize finally claimed in the near future.
The biggest difference between Gamera II and its earlier version is weight. The Gamera II’s frame incorporates micro-truss structures that lead to a 39 percent weight reduction from the Gamera I. Each composite crossbar of the Gamera II’s frame is 60 feet long and the rotors are 42.6 feet in diameter. Additional materials such as balsa wood, foam, mylar and carbon fibers make their way into the Gamera II for a total weight of 71 pounds.
But no matter how lightweight the helicopter is, an additional hurdle is the human being tasked with navigation. Humans have little power output for their weight, so the pilot must be very strong and fit, yet like a horse jockey, cannot be too heavy. Add the fact that helicopters need much more power than airplanes and the task becomes even more difficult. Nevertheless, the team out of College Park, MD came pretty close. All eyes will be on this campus just a few miles from Washington DC in the coming years as that quarter of a million dollars may finally be coughed up after all. An age of us moving around like the Jetsons, only more sustainably, could someday be the future.
Photos courtesy University of Maryland Department of Aerospace Engineering