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Human-powered helicopter wins Maryland students Igor Sikorsky Prize

Mounira Al HmoudThe Christian Science Monitor

A team of engineering students from the University of Maryland broke a new flight record in a human-powered aircraft. Pilot Kyle Gluesenkamp lifted his gymnasium-sized helicopter, Gamera II, about a foot off the ground for 50 seconds. Their record is still unofficial until the National Aeronautic Association rules on it.

For a helicopter to be considered "human powered," it must be powered only by direct human energy (no batteries or giant rubber bands allowed). Wired's Rhett Allain calculates that it took the furiously pedaling Gluesenkamp about 1,000 watts of power to get Gamera II off the ground. By comparison, elite cyclists can briefly generate up to 2,000 watts of power.

The Gamera II team discovered that adding hand cranks increased the power output up to 20 percent.

Gamera II is a student design challenge inspired by the American Helicopter Society Sikorsky Prize. Created in 1980 in memory of the helicopter pioneer Igor Sikorsky, the $250,000 prize requires a craft to attain a height of three meters during a 60-second flight while remaining in a 10 meter square. The prize has not yet been won.

The current official world record is held by a craft named Yuri I, which in 1994 achieved an altitude of about eight inches for just under 20 seconds. Yuri means ‘lilly,' in Japanese, and the craft was named for its flowery shape.

The first human-powered helicopter to lift off the ground was built in 1989 and christened the Da Vinci III, after the Renaissance polymath who first conceived of such a craft.

Gluesenkamp is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland's Clark School's mechanical engineering department. The other pilots are Colin Gore, Ph.D. candidate in the Clark School's materials science and engineering department, and Denis Bodewits, assistant research scientist in the University of Maryland Department of Astronomy.