On a typical day at the Vaughan Soccer Centre, twenty kilometers north of Toronto’s downtown, hundreds of soccer players from all ages, backgrounds and skill-levels will enter through the complex’s main doors to compete and train. On Thursday, June 13th, nothing – not even the wind – could sneak into the 130,000 square foot field house after Todd Reichert, Cameron Robertson and the rest of their AeroVelo engineering team had set everything in place to do something that had never been done before.
The Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition was established in 1980 by the American Helicopter Society to award a $25,000 prize to the designers of the first human-powered helicopter capable of a flight lasting 60 seconds that reaches an altitude of three meters and hovers within the confines of a 10-by-10 meter area. It took nine years for the first attempt at such an aircraft to evemget off the ground. Then, in 1994, a second helicopter managed “flight.” However, both of the these designs managed to stay in the air for less than twenty seconds and only attained altitudes of 20 centimeters. For the next 15 years, even these modest achievements couldn’t be duplicated.
Then, in 2009, the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, an American aircraft manufacturer based in Stratford, Connecticut, pledged to the American Helicopter Society that they would multiply the prize money by ten. Suddenly – and not surprisingly – interest in the competition piqued due to the quarter of a million dollar prize purse.
Two engineering teams from among the many attempting to produce the first Sikorsky-approved helicopter emerged as the front-runners: The University of Maryland and the aforementioned AeroVelo.
In 2011, students at the University of Maryland designed and built an aircraft that stayed airborne for four seconds. This was followed by a flight of 11 seconds and then a year later, the team flew their human-powered helicopter for 50 seconds. Despite more than 30 years of efforts from dozens of engineering teams, only five human-powered helicopters ever made it off the ground, and none matched the criteria set forth by the Sikorsky Competition.
However, a month after the 50-second flight, the team from Maryland achieved 65 seconds in the air on one attempt and two meters of altitude on another. For the first time, at least one of the Sikorsky requirements had been met, and the other two seemed to be within reach. Only months earlier, Reichert and Robertson
According to Reichert, if they were to accomplish something that had never been done before, they were going to have to think outside the box.
The big thing we tried to do was eliminate the constraints. Everyone before us had constrained themselves to fly inside of a gymnasium. So, in eliminating that, we said, basically, we’re going to build this aircraft as big as it needs to be. And aerodynamically, in order for this to succeed, it needs to be huge.
By the Spring of 2012, the duo, along with their dedicated AeroVelo team, had begun construction on Atlas, a human-powered helicopter that would span an incredible 47 meters from rotor-tip to rotor-tip, while weighing only 55 kilograms. In order to find the space necessary to see a project of this scale come to fruition, the team had to once again get creative and call on a favor from old friends.
Two years earlier – while University of Toronto Engineering students, themselves – Reichert and Robertson had become the first team to successfully build and fly a human-powered ornithopter (flapping-wing aircraft). Not only did the principles they learned while producing their record-breaking flight inform their attempt at the Sikorsky Challenge, they also made some important friends of flight along the way.
According to Robertson, it was these friends who once again pulled through in providing both the materials they used, as well as a workshop spacious enough for the team to actually put their design into production:
We moved up to a barn at the Great Lakes Gliding club in Tottenham, Ontario, which is where we had built the ornithopter. A team of eight students from the University of Toronto Engineering as well as other schools across Canada was really dedicated at that point and did a lot of painstaking design, hard work in testing and then fabrication where we basically brought together all of the materials and made the helicopter.
The team would work from sunrise to sunset through the hot summer months in conditions that were more common to punishment than innovation. While the increase in size of the carrot may have sparked the duo’s interest in creating a human-powered helicopter, there was something less tangible beginning to motivate them and increase their drive to do what had never been done.
In sports, those who use advanced metrics often ridicule the idea of placing emphasis on a athlete’s drive. There’s good reason for this. For years, sports writing has abused intangibles to produce what was considered to be fuller narratives. For the most part, such stories are fictions. The sports writer is ultimately just as unable to measure a player’s drive as he or she is likely to apply a complex formula to explain what happens on the field, court or rink of play.
At an analytics conference last Spring, Los Angeles Angels General Manager Jerry Dipoto was asked what he looks for first in a player as it relates to acquisitions. He prefaced his answer by saying that those in attendance might not like it, but that he puts a lot of emphasis on something he called, “The Want To.”
The term that Dipoto used essentially refers to a player’s effort, a desire to work toward a goal. Too frequently, among the analytically inclined, the importance of effort and the potential for variance between competing parties are dismissed. Nonetheless, effort remains a real thing. It’s treated with such disregard mainly because we can’t measure it precisely, and when others attempt to use it to justify an assumption, they typically sound uninformed.
There is no simple explanation for the urge within individuals to accomplish the seemingly impossible. We might point to a monetary prize or public notoriety as motivating factors, but it’s unlikely that such urges toward personal glory are able to combat the discouragements that are inherent to such pursuits.
In speaking with Reichert and Robertson, one can’t help but notice an excitement in their voices when they talk about the principles attached to what they set out to accomplish. It betrays any of the manicuring that media training might have provided, and it tells a story of its own. Producing a human-powered helicopter isn’t as much about simple determination, as it is a desire to do more with less.
There’s a unique altruism to the pair’s motivation that explains what might otherwise be labelled as single-mindedness or resoluteness. Reichert, as self-aware as the subject in a mirror, earnestly believes that taking on the challenge of doing something that has not been done before has the potential to result in providing solutions to future challenges.
This is not going to be a flight vehicle that people can commute with, but the technologies that we come up with in taking on these kind of design challenges really force us to take on the type of challenges that we’re going to need to face in the future.
After almost a year of tests, tweaks, falls and getting closer, the team loaded up the individual elements of their massive machine into a a 16-meter trailer and brought it once again to the Vaughan Soccer Centre where they had worked out a routine through eight months of monotonous flight attempts.
The materials, delicate and flexible, are unloaded onsite. An hour-and-a-half later, assembly is typically finished. However, the fine-tuning and balancing can take just as long. Rotors are adjusted, bracing lines are modified. A half-dozen flight attempts take place before everything is just right.
Throughout this process, the environment is made as neutral as possible. There are no fans blowing. No central cooling system. Even the abundant air in the soccer center’s massive encampment grows stagnant. It’s at this point that Reichert, whose training and diet have created an optimum weight to power ratio, begins pumping his legs like pistons, gradually working up to rhythmic cadence.
Then, the culmination of two years of work lifts, rises, remains high in the air, and moves past the three meter mark. The piloting strategy of Reichert is visible as he shifts his weight, manipulating the bracing lines that were previously adjusted. He somehow forces AeroVelo’s Atlas to stay suspended in the air. The sight of his face makes it almost believable that the flight is just as much the result of his mind’s ability to levitate objects through focus as any explanation that engineering might provide.
Whatever the cause, it floats within the requisite space and stays in the air for a long enough duration to meet the challenges that the Sikorsky prize laid out. As the Atlas comes back down to earth – in both a literal and figurative sense – it lands with a moment of silence, as though a script writer had placed a “(beat)” in the story’s text. Then, an exhaustive and accomplished cheer from Robertson, one might expect to hear on the battlefield after an especially brutal enemy has been vanquished, informs the rest of the team that they may celebrate with cheers and applause.
They did it. Unofficially, anyway. Throughout the flight attempts, cameras and measuring tools are used to document every imaginable aspect of the machine and its flight. It’s all packaged together and sent to the American Helicopter Society. The organization takes a month to verify the documentation. Then, on July 11th, 2013, they release their findings.
The flight is a success. After 33 years, the Sikorsky prize has been won by Reichert and Robertson’s record-breaking flight that lasted 64 seconds and reached a height of 3.3 meters. The seemingly impossible is rendered possible. A human-powered helicopter was created.
The term “human-powered” is perhaps more apt than one might initially realize. While we may assume this refers solely to Atlas’s pilot sitting atop the donated Cervelo R5ca bike frame, the true human power is evidenced not just in the design or the manufacturing or even the often championed drive toward accomplishment, but in the purpose and meaning we attach to capability.
We find a challenge. We work toward a solution. We struggle to make ideas practical. Then, once we accomplish what we set out to do, we use the principles of our successful process to inform our future. This describes the story of AeroVelo’s human-powered helicopter, and it describes our power as humans.