Since 1980, the American Helicopter Society’s Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition has remained without a victor. Finally, in June 2013, the aviation challenge was met by a helicopter called Atlas.
Throughout the decades, dozens of teams have attempted to get vertically airborne using only human muscles as fuel – but only a few have succeeded. To win the competition though, AeroVelo’s human powered helicopter Atlas met three specific requirements: to hover for at least a minute (testing human endurance), at least three meters in the air (testing total lift), without the central reference point drifting outside a 10-meter square (testing controllability).
They may sound like simple requirements, but 33 years without success reveals the severe challenges that engineers had to overcome to negotiate the impossible. On top of the substantial costs, space requirements and necessary manpower, the engineering difficulties were met with new advancements in technological modeling and optimization for helicopter design. The team spent 18 months revolutionizing the field of vertical flight by digitally optimizing and constructing models of the structure, focusing on aerodynamics, kinematics, and pilot capabilities. The enormous design of Atlas features four meter-wide rotors powered by a vigorously pedaling athlete at the center.
The competition was designed to push for scientific creativity and challenge engineers to overcome nearly impossible requirements using skill, technology and determination. But beyond the necessary engineering skills, how did the team solve the puzzle? By removing unnecessary constraints like practicality and size, any and all ideas were allowed to surface. “We all need to start really questioning the state that we’re in and how to move beyond it,” suggests Aerovelo’s co-chief engineer Cameron Robertson. “We knew nothing about helicopters, but we were able to do the impossible. Everybody can become better problem solvers and global citizens by inhabiting that state of mind.”