Never underestimate human beings. Every time it seems that homo sapiens have reached an impassable roadblock, we find a way around. Take for instance Canadian inventors Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson. Together the duo pocketed a cool quarter of a million bucks for building a human-powered helicopter in the summer of 2013.
The cash was their reward for winning the Sikorsky prize, one of the most sought after goals in the aviation world. Established in 1980, it challenged inventors to build a muscle-driven helicopter that could arise about 10 feet (3 meters) in the air and stay aloft for 60 seconds. Dozens of well-financed teams tried over the years to accomplish the feat. Yet their efforts ended in failure.
These dismal results led many researchers to conclude that no one would ever win. For example, aeronautical engineer Antonio Filippone published a paper in a 2007 issue of the Journal of the American Helicopter Society that said the feat was impossible.
If Reichert and Robertson read the naysayer’s comments, there’s no indication that they paid them heed. The maverick visionaries started their quest by raising $30,000 through a Kickstarter campaign. Then they enlisted the help of modern information technology to figure out why past attempts had failed. Lacking the giant budgets needed to access supercomputers, they spent five months developing software for their project that could run from an off-the-shelf laptop.
Their programs revealed their predecessors had erred by thinking too small. A helicopter capable of winning the prize would have to be huge but exceptionally light by conventional standards. To accomplish their goal while staying within budget, they used materials that have been readily available for decades, like Mylar, Styrofoam, and balsa wood.
After running the numbers, they realized they would need to shed weight from one of the copter’s key components: Reichert himself. At the beginning of the project he weighed 180 pounds. But calculations showed that the copter could only lift a maximum weight of 165. So he went on a rigid training program, shedding 20 pounds over a few months. At final weigh-in he was a svelte 160, just slim enough to make the flight possible.
They named the final version of their featherweight aircraft “Atlas.” It included four support beams built from carbon-fiber tubes and cables fashioned from high-tech fibers. The result was an X-shaped behemoth with an 88-foot wingspan. The rotors were built from balsa wood and covered in transparent Mylar skins. At the center of the craft was an ultralight bicycle frame minus the wheels. An ingenious system of lines and spools transferred the pedal’s rotating motion to the Atlas’s rotors.
The events during the official testing phase played out like scenes from a Rocky movie. Reichert and Robertson set the Atlas up in an indoor soccer stadium. For five days they conducted a series of test flights. Each time they came tantalizingly close to the standards set for the Sikorsky prize, only to miss them by a hair’s breadth.
Finally, on the last day, with 10 minutes to go before their time ran out, Reichert raised the Atlas to a height of 3.3 m. He kept it there for 64 seconds. The team had proven the experts wrong and made themselves $250,000 richer.
This story is made even more amazing by the fact that neither Reichert nor Robertson had ever designed a helicopter before. They were newcomers to the field; yet they out-did larger teams with far more resources.
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