Thirty years ago, the American Helicopter Society International launched an engineering competition in the hope of sparking invention — a challenge that would trigger innovation but, as executive director Mike Hirschberg put it, "start with something easy."
On Sunday, the prize for the "easy" challenge — building a human-powered helicopter that can hover 10 feet in the air for one minute — remained unclaimed. But a team of University of Maryland students is resolved that, one day, they'll be the ones to win it.
In the cavernous field house at the Prince George's Sports and Learning Complex in Hyattsville, a dozen college students dressed in matching black polo shirts flitted among foam wings and four long arms made of a fine carbon framework centered in the middle of the indoor track.
For the past four years, and with the help of more than 100 students, Team Gamera has been attempting to be the first group of engineers to clinch the $250,000 AHS Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition. A Canadian team is thought to be close to the prize as well.
"We've flown many different versions in the past. This one's our most efficient helicopter yet," said Will Staruk, 24, project manager for Team Gamera. "We've taken out a lot of that power that it needs to fly, and we've added a control system. That way we can steer it and keep it centered so it doesn't drift too far."
Named after a fictional giant flying turtle, Team Gamera has built its own flying machine — a quadrotor.
Unlike a helicopter, which has rotor blades mounted on its roof and tail, a quadrotor has four large rotors with two blades each mounted around or below the lightweight main framework.
To meet the prize requirements, a team's helicopter cannot hover outside a 10 foot by 10 foot square. That means that not only must the pilot provide the power for the helicopter — done through a system of hand and foot pedals connected to pulleys and strings — he must also steer it.
Brandon Draper is one of Team Gamera's five pilots. At 19, the freshman aerospace engineering major weighs about 135 pounds — a crucial characteristic for keeping the craft as light as possible.
On Sunday, he helped the team with some low-altitude hovers, which allowed them to more closely examine the helicopter's rotors in action.
"I'd never actually cycled, but I've played soccer and run cross country," Mr. Draper said as he took a break at the snack table and ate a bagel and cream cheese. "I was definitely not expecting this to be easy."
While an attempt at full speed and power takes only a minute, the work that goes into that one attempt takes much more time.
The particular machine used Sunday was designed in early 2011, but the team didn't start building it until August that year. It was finished in May 2012, and last summer the team set a world record for flying duration at 65.1 seconds and an unofficial world record for hovering at 9 feet.
The quadrotor has a wingspan of a Boeing 737. Built of carbon, insulator foam and aluminum, it weighs just about 85 pounds with all eight of its rotor blades attached. It only flies inside, and the team needs an area large enough for its wing span.
Watching the students dismantle one of the blades for inspection, V.T. Nagaraj, one of the advisers for the team and a senior research scientist with the university's Department of Aerospace Engineering, said that while it sounded cliche, the team "sees any problem as a challenge."
"They see a problem and they go and solve it," Mr. Nagaraj said. "We just keep going."
He said if the team can't reach the prize goal this weekend, the hope is to try again in the summer.
Despite the frequent setbacks that engineering teams can experience, Mr. Hirschberg said he and the helicopter society are confident the prize eventually will be won.
"Some don't think so," he said, "but the reason we believe it's possible is the work that the teams do. Each try comes so close — tantalizingly close. We believe it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when."
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