Human-Powered Helicopter Motors Toward New Frontier

Bill Weir, C. Michael Kim, David Miller, Justin Bare & Brad Marxer
This Could Be Big

Getting a helicopter 3 meters off the ground for 1 minute doesn't seem like much of an achievement, but doing it without the power of a motorized engine has stumped engineers for the entirety of human history.

Since 1980, there has been a bounty on the table in the form of the Sikorksy Challenge - which states that any group able to build a human powered helicopter that can meet those criteria, all without leaving a 10-meter by 10-meter area, will be awarded a prize of $250,000 and the universal admiration of fellow engineers. A few teams came close in the 80's and 90's, but no group has claimed the prize. That may be changing soon.

A team of 75 students from the University of Maryland have built a of carbon fiber helicopter that is inching its way towards that record, and it is called the Gamera - whimsically named after the flying turtle from old Japanese monster movies and a play on the university's mascot, the Terrapin.

It's powered by the ½ horsepower "Meat-Motor" (as the pilots call themselves) of a few other specially selected strong and lightweight pilots from the school. While they've crashed several times, requiring enough super-glue to warrant corporate sponsorship, on one flight the Gamera was able to meet the 1 minute mark within the 10-meter range and on another flight they nearly reached the 3 meter height requirement. It's too bad they can't glue those stats together.

We spoke with PhD student and Project Manager William Staruk and pilot Colin Gore to learn more about the project and see what's next.