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Human-powered helicopter hovers accurately for 60 seconds, beats 'impossible' challenge

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AeroVelo Atlas human-powered helicopter (Credit: AHS International/AeroVelo)
AeroVelo Atlas human-powered helicopter (Credit: AHS International/AeroVelo)

A Canadian duo and their Kickstarter-funded, pedal-powered helicopter have won one of the longest-standing challenges in the history of aviation — keeping a human-powered aircraft hovering up in the air at height of at least 9.8 feet, within a 32.8 by 32.8-foot square, for 60 seconds minimum. The challenge, known as the Sikorsky prize, has withstood at numerous failed attempts since it was established in 1980, 33 years ago, even with a $250,000 bounty. But it was finally bested earlier in June by the Atlas, a gigantic human-powered helicopter designed by Cameron Robertson and Todd Reichert, aeronautical engineers from the University of Toronto, who cofounded a company AeroVelo.

The pair funded the construction of their winning aircraft through a successful Kickstarter campaign last year, and just barely managed to beat a rival team from the University of Maryland, whose craft Gamera failed to stay within the square-foot range required by the prize, as Popular Mechanics reports.

"We’re very excited for the world to learn about this exciting milestone in aviation history."

The Atlas is controlled by having a single pilot pedal a bicycle-like wheel to turn the aircraft's four enormous, independent rotors (one at each corner). The entire span of the craft is 190 feet. On June 13th, with Reichert pedaling away in the pilot's seat in an indoor soccer stadium in Vaughn, Ontario, the Atlas reached a height of nearly 11 feet, stayed aloft for 64.11 seconds, and drifted only 32 feet. But it took a month for the results to be confirmed. "We’re very excited for the world to learn about this exciting milestone in aviation history," Robertson wrote on AeroVelo's blog today.

The award was formally announced today by the American Helicopter Society (AHS), the organization which administers the prize. As the AHS notes, the challenge was particularly formidable because: "it did not appear that a pilot could generate enough power to produce sufficient lift from the helicopter’s rotors. Doing so would require a highly athletic bicyclist at a very light weight who could power a very large machine, also at a very light weight, and generate high lift from the rotors. AeroVelo succeeded with all of these." AHS international director Mike Hirschberg noted that many considered the challenge "impossible." AHS says that as a result of the successful flight of Atlas, the prize has been retired, but the organization is working on another, separate aviation goal that it plans to unveil in the coming months.