Fun Fact: There is a competition to build a human-powered helicopter.

Droppin’ some knowledge on you, fellow geeks! Unless of course you already knew about the Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition, in which case…sharing a reference with you, fellow geeks! Now, I hadn’t heard about this competition before today, so I’ll go into more detail on it for those of you who might be like me.

The Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition was started by the American Helicopter Society back in 1980. To win the $25,000 prize, an entry must A) fly for a minimum of 60 seconds, B) reach an altitude of at least 3 meters (9.8 ft) and C) hover above a 10 by 10 meter square without leaving it. Over the 33 years the competition has been around, dozens of teams have built helicopters and entered them, but not one of them won…until this year.

That’s right, this past July (the 11th, to be precise), a team called AeroVelo clenched the title with their entry, Atlas. AeroVelo is composed of students and graduates from the University of Toronto, and the Atlas isn’t their first foray into human-powered flight. They’re also the team behind Snowbird, the first human-powered ornithopter. But we’re not here to talk about that; we’re interested in helicopters.


As it turns out, so was Da Vinci…sort of…kind of…

Back in the 1400s, Da Vinci created some designs in his notebooks that had to do with flight, because the man was clearly an alien/time-traveller/crazy-smart fella. His famous “helicopter” design is actually more of an “air screw” than anything, but it looks like a helicopter, so that’s what’s called. The trouble with Da Vinci’s drawing, however, is that it’d take a team of men pushing the central capstan way faster than anyone could reasonably hope to do, and I’d say that’s a problem with most human-powered helicopters: getting things going fast enough to get the craft up in the air. (Then again, I’m no physicist or aeronautical engineer, so I could be totally wrong on that.)

I do know, thought, that this is how AeroVelo’s Atlas did it.

Four rotors, a modified bicycle frame and a guy who can pedal that thing for a lot longer than I can. AeroVelo’s flight lasted for 64.11 seconds, reached a maximum height of 3.3 meters, and stayed within the box (the pilot controlled that by leaning from one side to the other). Essentially, the entire thing is a flying unicycle, and as someone who’s ridden a number of unicycles in his day, I have to say that the Atlas is infinitely cooler.

True, it’s not like we’ll all be taking them to work any time soon–the Atlas has a tip-to-tip rotor span of 154 ft–but even so, AeroVelo conquered one of the enduring feats of aviation, and I tip my cap to them.

What do you think of the Atlas, fellow geeks? Anyone feel up to building one this weekend? (Every flight would have to be great cardio.) Be sure to let us know in the comments below!