Students Design And Build A Human-Powered Helicopter That Actually Flies


A structural design is sitting on edge of what’s strong enough and what’s light enough. Taking out the engine is a big challenge for us, putting a human in there is what makes it really hard. A team of young engineers from the University of Maryland is trying to do the impossible. Conceptually, it’s extremely basic and yet in practice, it’s extremely difficult. They have spent last four years building a human-powered helicopter and now they’re putting it to the test.

These engineering students are chasing the American Helicopter Society’s $250,000 Sikorsky prize. It’s been unclaimed for more than three decades. They have to build a human-powered flying machine that can hover for a min and can reach a height of 3 meters without drifting out of a ten-meter box. “It’s an engineering challenge. Nobody’s ever done this before. Yes, it doesn’t look like the most advanced technology out there but we are really pushing limits of composite structures and lightweight designs.” Says Elizabeth Weiner, a Ph.D. candidate for aerospace engineering and a participant in the project.

The helicopter is built out of carbon-fibre tubes, Styrofoam and lots of superglue. It’s over a hundred feet across but weighs only 80 pounds. Unspooling strings make the rotors turn. The team of students reached an amazing altitude of 8 feet in their 11th test flight. For the first time, the 10 foot requirement of Sikorsky prize seemed within reach. But there is still one problem though. There is no steering mechanism on the helicopter. He helicopter tends to drift out of its ten-meter box breaking one of the Sikorsky prize rules.

A crash during the tests grounded Maryland’s helicopter for now. The team is already redesigning and rebuilding, trying to control their helicopter’s drift. The Sikorsky prize hovers just beyond reach. But as the engineers say, ‘It’s not a problem, it’s a challenge’. Watch the interesting video below!

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