Human-powered Gamera helicopter hovers its way into the record books

A biology student has just hovered her way into the record books in a four-rotor, human-powered helicopter named after a giant flying turtle from Japanese kaiju movies.

Gamera was built to try and claim the American Helicopter Society‘s Sikorsky Prize, that was set up in 1980 and has yet to be claimed. The team’s first flights in May resulted in a 4.2-second U.S. national record, and now the record page has had to be rewritten again after the young pilot’s frantic combination of hand and foot pedaling action kept Gamera in the air for nearly three times longer, during the recent summer flight sessions.

For the last two years, a team of 50 graduate and undergraduate students from the Alfred Gessow Rotorcraft Center at the University of Maryland‘s Department of Aerospace Engineering has been designing, building and tweaking a lightweight, four-rotor helicopter that’s powered by the human pilot suspended at its center. The hope is to build a craft capable of walking away with the American Helicopter Society‘s Sikorsky Prize of US$250,000.

The rules of this challenge – named in honor of helicopter pioneer Igor Sikorsky – state that the craft should get all of its power from the human pilot and that it should thus be capable of hovering for 60 seconds within a 10-meter (32.8-foot) square area. During this time, the lowest part of the machine must reach an altitude of 3 meters (9.84 feet) above the ground – if only momentarily. As of August 2011, no-one has claimed the prize.

The closest so far was 1994’s Yuri I (19.46 seconds at an altitude of 0.2 meters/0.65 feet) designed by the Nihon University Aero Student Group. Gamera sports a similar design – with a 42-foot (12.8-meter) rotor at the end of each of the four points of a cross, and the pilot sat in the middle. Each crossbar of the frame is 60 feet (18.2 meters) long.

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“The similarities are more a result of convergent evolution than direct inspiration,” the team’s Joe Schmaus told Gizmag. “Helicopters are notoriously challenging to control and human powered flight has only ever been possible with the aid of ground effect. A quad rotor is the only configuration we have identified that is passively stable and allows the rotors to be as deep in ground effect as possible.”

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