This week, a team at Toronto university won the “Igor I. Sikorsky Competition” by building a man-powered helicopter and flying their machine “Atlas” within a 10mx10m box, at a height of 3m for over a minute.
Here’s the Quickfire Science on the history of man-powered flight with Claudia Efstathiou and Priya Crosby
- Leonardo da Vinci drew a blue print for a man-powered helicopter in the 15th century, driven by men running round in a circle although it was never built.
- Bikes are a running theme though all subsequent attempts at man powered flight, because the are one of the most efficient methods of transport.
- A lot of energy is needed to lift aircraft off the ground and using the strong muscles in our legs is the best way generate this power.
- In 1923 W. Fredrick Gerhardt from Ohio flew his “cycle plane” at an altitude of 2 feet for just over 6 meters. Gerhardt’s machine had 7 wings stacked on top of each other and was 15 feet tall.
- In 1959 British industrialist Henry Kremer offered a £5,000 prize for the first human powered aircraft that could complete a figure of 8 course over a mile.
- Kremer later increased the prize money to £50,000 and opened the competition to applicants from overseas; previously it had only allowed British entries.
- The prize was finally won in 1977 by American engineer Dr. Paul MacCready with a machine named “Gossamer Condor”. The design was based on hang gliders, with a bike unit suspended in the middle.
- MacCready also designed the first man powered plane to cross the English Channel. On the 12th June 1979 the Gossamer Albatross successfully made the 22.2 mile trip in 2 hours and 49 mins.
- Man powered planes are easier to build than man powered helicopters because you can increase their efficiency by lengthening the wing. This is more difficult on a helicopter because the blades have to move.
- The man-powered helicopter which managed to fly for over a minute this week has four blades each with a radius of over 10 meters, that’s roughly the length of three mini coopers.
- The whole helicopter is over 49 meters wide but despite having such a large structure, the team used super-light materials such as carbon fibre tubes and expanded polystyrene foam to ensure the final helicopter weighed only 55kg.