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AeroVelo's Atlas joins Sikorsky race for human-powered helicopter flight


October 15, 2012

The Atlas helicopter is the latest human-powered helicopter to compete for the Sikorsky Prize

The Atlas helicopter is the latest human-powered helicopter to compete for the Sikorsky Prize

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The efforts of Maryland University's Gamera II team in snaring the US$250,000 Sikorsky Prize for human-powered helicopter flight have garnered much attention (not least from Gizmag) in recent months, and with good reason. But the team is by no means alone in chasing down its sadistic requirements set by the American Helicopter Society in 1980. First tested in August, The Atlas helicopter, by human-powered vehicle specialists AeroVelo, is the latest machine to enter the fray, and has already flown successfully, becoming only the fourth human-powered helicopter to do so.

In fact it was the very same day, August 28, 2012, that Gamera II broke through the crucial 60-second barrier stipulated by the prize (though flights must also achieve an altitude of 3 meters (9.8 ft) while remaining inside a 10-meter (32.8-ft) square) that Atlas took flight for the first time, for a total of "about 4 seconds."

That may be 61 seconds shy of the current benchmark, but AeroVelo, which began life as the University of Toronto's Human-Powered Vehicle Design Team in 2006, is no slouch when it comes to human-powered vehicles. The team not only broke the college land speed record in 2011 with its Vortex streamlined bicycle (achieving a speed of 72.6 mph/116.9 km/h), but has also seen successful forays into human-powered flight with what it claims is the first working human-powered ornithopter. AeroVelo has reason for optimism, then.

Fundamentally, Atlas is designed upon a very similar principle to Gamera II and its predecessor. They all consist of four twin-blade rotors connected to a lightweight frame, surrounding the pilot who is suspended on a bicycle-like mechanism that powers the vehicle from its center.

The team went through a taxing period of testing between August 21, when Atlas was assembled in its entirety for the first time, and September 4. The testing period was not without teething trouble and hiccups, including a crash on August 29 that damaged the aircraft. The team also realized that the rotor blades had very limited freedom of movement before bracing lines would be clipped, leading to many test flights being aborted at an early stage. The time made design changes to give the rotors more breathing space, while limiting their vertical movement.

It would seem foolish to bet against Gamera II just yet. NPR reports that AeroVelo's Atlas team is a mere eight strong, and has the added frustration of having to disassemble and reassemble the Atlas during every day of testing, due to the limited availability of the indoor soccer field used for test flights. Having said that, human-powered flight is still anything but predictable. We watch with interest.

You can see a video of the first flight of the Atlas below.

Source: AeroVelo, American Helicopter Society, via NPR

About the Author
James Holloway James lives in East London where he punctuates endless tea drinking with freelance writing and meteorological angst. Unlocking Every Extend Extra Extreme’s “Master of Extreme” achievement was the fourth proudest moment of his life. All articles by James Holloway

It's not "Flight" until you get out of ground effect. All of these human powered rotary winged vehicles like this one and Gamera II, that have been making the internet rounds seem to ignore this.

Mike Langford

re; Mike Langford

According to who?


Mike Langford,

You're parsing semantics. The American Helicopter Society is in charge of this competition and they called it "flight." Anyone who's not obsessive-compulsive about the term can accept that it can refer to a sustained period of self-powered liftoff from the ground. Why don't you try telling everybody that the Wright Brothers didn't "fly" at Kitty Hawk because they never left ground effect that day? Good luck with that.


Nice work but these guys are all missing something. They are thinking outside the box but, unfortunately, not above the box. They would be better off with balsa wood and a more efficent rotor design. They still have too much drag and not enought lifting force. They need to get the final drive rpm up substantially. If "human powered" means no stored energy, any successful team will have to harvest that from RPM.


Mike Langford is correct.

While the rules can say whatever they want but in real life, aerodynamics, aircraft, helicopter design it's at best a ground effect machine no different than a hovercraft. With it's rotor span it would need to go over 200' to get out of most GE.

It's those questioning Mike that don't know what they are talking about and I'd bet Sikorsky would too say this was not a helicopter if he was alive as it took him yrs to get out of ground effect and into real flight..


Getting out of ground effect -- Mike Larson has a point there -- except that the vehicles cannot be accused to ignore this...

If somebody ignores something, it's the students abiding by the rules of the contest and not being aware of the fact that American Helicopter Society, who issued the rules, has vested military interests (its genuinely civil counter-part being Helicopter Association International alias HAI).

Hence, allowing for ground-effect hovering with an altitude requirement of a mere 3 meters denotes that the intent of the Pentagon-backed AHS is to prevent a break-through in ultra-light rotary-wing aircraft technology for civil mass use -- same reason why the civil AW609 tilt-rotor prototype is still grounded in Italy...

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