Look Out, Da Vinci: Maryland Students Come Close to Human-Powered Flight

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In 1923, a 97-pound bike with seven wings flew, kind of. (It traveled twenty feet and rose two feet in the air.) In 1994, a Japanese built a human-powered craft that hovered for 19 seconds; it only made it 20 centimeters above the ground. For more than a decade, that stood as the world record. Despite all our other advancements in technology, human-powered flight remains frustratingly elusive — so elusive that in 1980 the American Helicopter Society International created the Sikorsky prize: $250,000 to anyone who could achieve 60 seconds of flight at at least 10 feet. But for 30 years, no one’s come close. Until now.

Colin Gore, a PhD student in materials science at the University of Maryland, recently shattered the 1994 record, remaining airborne (well, a foot or two off the ground) for a full 40 seconds. Gore and 35 other UM engineering students worked together to build the Gamera II (named after a flying turtle monster from a Japanese horror movie — sort of a proto-terrapin, if you will), a complex craft that they’re hoping will help snag them the Sikorsky prize.

“Human-powered airplanes have been flying for some decades and a lot of people wonder, ‘Well, what’s so much harder about a helicopter?'” William Staruk, the team’s project manager, told the Atlantic. “The problem is that a helicopter has to lift itself vertically into the air directly against gravity… So we end up requiring on the order of three times more power than a human-powered airplane does.” In other words, the craft requires a lot of power and a lot of efficiency. (The Atlantic has all the juicy details on the carbon fiber micro-truss system the team developed for the project; engineers get your fill here.)

While this is all undeniably cool, it’s still pretty far from what most people consider flight. Nor is it particularly practical. “No one’s ever going to use our helicopter for a practical use,” Staruk admits. But that’s sort of not the point. “Things do not have to be practical to be exciting,” Gore says.  Watch a video of Gore’s flight below the jump:

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