Students' Pedal-Powered Helicopter Achieves Lift-Off

human-powered helicopter photo
Photo via New Scientist

Imagine hopping into your very own pedal-powered helicopter, soaring majestically above the ground with nothing more than your arms and legs propelling your flight. Well, that's just what a team of engineering students from the University of Maryland did last week -- but of course, 'soaring' might be a bit of an overstatement in this case. Nevertheless, the latest test-flight of Gamera, the group's large and light craft, is a promising leap forward in terms of the potential for clean transportation -- even if it only went a few inches from where it started.In a clever craft featuring four wide propellers, pilot/engine Judy Wexler generated enough energy to lift herself several inches of the ground for a few seconds in the university's gymnasium.

Similar human-powered helicopter flights have been attempted before over the years; in fact, there's a $250,000 prize awaiting anyone who's able to do so, as long as they fulfill certain requirements -- like reaching a hovering distance of at least three meters. Unfortunately, the Gamera's recent flight failed to meet the challenge, but the team still feels "ecstatic" about their ability to achieve liftoff.

And according to New Scientist, the Gamera team have a right to feel proud of their accomplishment, though flying low is a bit easier than you might think:

Human-powered aeroplanes have been successful in the past, such as when the Gossamer Albatross flew across the English Channel in 1979, but flying a helicopter is more challenging as they must be much lighter and more efficient. Both Gamera and Yuri 1 achieve flight by exploiting the ground effect, an increase in lift that occurs when an aircraft flies close to the ground. Gamera actually uses an "extreme" ground effect, with the rotors less than five per cent of their length off the ground.

But despite the fact that the team from the University of Maryland won't be making any traffic reports from their pedal-powered helicopter anytime soon, the brief liftoff speaks volumes about what is possible when human brain power meets human muscle power -- and this may only be the beginning.

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