Pedal-powered helicopter captures innovation prize

AeroVelo's winning flight. Photo: The Vertical Flight Technical Society

AeroVelo’s winning flight. Photo: The Vertical Flight Technical Society

Human-powered flight. From mythic tales to renderings by Leonardo da Vinci, people have long wished they could fly.

Technically speaking, it’s not a dream anymore. According to Wikipedia, human-powered airplanes date from 2008. Now the accomplishment includes hovering, or helicopter-type flight.

Back in June, a team called AeroVelo apparently met parameters for a landmark contest first established in 1980.

The AHS Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition prize for that feat was officially awarded on Thursday. (Monetary reward: $250,000. Accomplishment: priceless!)

This story requires some degree of Canadian chest thumping. As reported in Maclean’s Magazine, the AeroVelo flight team is mostly made up of graduates from the University of Toronto and the successful flight took place in the Ontario Soccer Centre in Vaughan, Ontario. (You can also read about the exploits of a related group, the Human-Powered Ornithopter (HPO) project.)

The standard to meet was this: “A one minute hovering time, a momentary achievement of 3 meters altitude, and controlling the vehicle within a constrained box — all in the same flight ” (full rules are listed here.)

Here’s more on the competition, from Popular Science. (Note: “Atlas” is the name of the helicopter flown by the AeroVelo team):

Despite the prize going unclaimed for so long, the competition came down to the wire. The Atlas team was going up against two other aircraft, and one of them, the Gamera II, met the time requirement and came pretty close to the height requirement last year.

But lest you think this is the end of the three-decade-plus story, the American Helicopter Society, which oversees the prize, has announced “another grand challenge” coming soon.

The story of Icarus stands as a cautionary tale: follow instructions and understand limits – or suffer significant consequences.

True, the achievement is far from any real form of transportation. But no matter. Here’s how human ‘motor’ Todd Reichert framed the significance, according to Maclean’s Magazine:

“We do these kinds of human-powered projects because we are really interested in making sure people out there know there are solutions to challenges facing us in terms of sustainability and the environment,” he says. “Creative engineering and design and innovation can solve a lot of problems out there.”

Sounds good to me!

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9 Comments on “Pedal-powered helicopter captures innovation prize”

  1. Ken Hall says:

    Let me see if I understand the premise of this article. Using ultra lightweight (flimsy) construction techniques humans are going to solve the carbon dioxide build up in the atmosphere problems, produced by current transportation modes, by building human powered helicopters. From the video it is apparent that a well trained athlete is required to enable this helicopter to hover at approximately 10 feet AGL for one whole minute of flight time within a wind sheltering building. WOW!

    For a glimpse of the human powered flight of the past check out this link.- -,to read about a most impressive 71+ mile/115+ kilometer flight of an MIT designed human powered aircraft and it’s demise check out this link,- – and to read about the first human powered aircraft to cross the English Channel in 1979 check out this link- -.

    I submit that as interesting as these efforts are they are not about to significantly reduce the conversion of hydrocarbon fuels into heat water and carbon dioxide with respect to human transportation via human powered flying machines; I would submit that the R&D and construction of these devices likely added considerably to the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere.

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  2. Pete Klein says:

    This is no more than a circus stunt.

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  3. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    The solution to technological problems that enabled this achievement will presumably translate to other technologies.

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  4. Lucy Martin says:

    Valid points Ken. (And thanks for the supplemental links.)

    I shared the post for those who like flying and invention. The “Pollyanna” comment at the end is just me wishing more effort, funding and priority went toward solving important issues – like sustainability.

    Humans are not going away willingly and current resource consumption is unsustainable. Ergo, we really do need a plague that wipes out half or more of the planetary population, or much smarter solutions for just about everything we do. (I fear the former and prefer the later!)

    A giant contraption that hovers for a mere minute – in a protected environment – has little practical value. But if aspects of that project have broader application, well, that could be a step forward.

    It may be overly optimistic to think humans can engineer their way out of current problems. I think we have little choice but to try – and try harder! – because the status quo sure ain’t cutting it.

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  5. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    If only someone could engineer a plague that only killed people who don’t give a damn about how their actions affect other people and don’t even want to listen to people who do give a damn. That would be a plague I could get behind if I were the titular head of state.

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  6. Ken Hall says:

    I am heartened to read that at least two other homo sapiens in the N.C. of NY recognize that the “real” solution to the plethora of human induced problems spaceship Earth is currently facing is a massive reduction in the total number of homo sapiens currently aboard the Earth.

    I have commented about the massive human over population at this web site and others for the past few years invariably eliciting the unending wrath of the true believers who are convinced that the only form of fauna that is of consequence is (god’s creation) the human animal. Unfortunately the self proclaimed smartest critter in the Universe (stated occasionally with the caveat “currently known of”) has demonstrated a paucity of this vaunted intelligence when it comes to the obviously coupled exponential increase in the human population and the exponential decrease of the Earth’s resources.

    Although a massive fauna die off is currently under way on space ship Earth I would be amazed if you would find 1 in 100 of randomly approached passers by when asked if they knew of the current fauna die off would answer in the affirmative and an even smaller number who would recognize that the cause is “us”.

    I think that Lucy and Knuc aim too low in their proposed reduction numbers that we (humans) should target; a human population of half of the current 7+ billion humans would leave 3.5+ billion which is a billion more than there were on Earth when I was born in 1942. A more rational target would be 10% or less of the current crop of mindlessly consuming humans, a number which would have to be maintained at such a level ad infinitum and therein lies the rub with the true believers whom have no qualms whatsoever controlling the populations of Earth’s other animals (to extinction) but not so when it comes to the human animal.

    As much as a massively effective pandemic or war might appear to be the answer to the human over population mess, such occurrences in the near past have not been particularly effective and they disproportionately affect the poor/lower classes. I have proposed that the only reasonable and rational approach to massively reduce the human population in a “humane” (is that not a preposterous word by it’s very definition?) manner, sans war and pestilence, is to develop a sterilization process to be applied to all human “males” (oh gasp no!) via a to be developed chemical which would be included within all food and drink. Quantities of human semen would be cryogenically stored for use to maintain a viable female population such that when the appropriate population level is attained through the natural aging and die off process a balanced and maintained human population could/would be possible naturally and fertile males would be allowed again.

    Obviously about 1/2 of the Earth’s human population would take great umbrage to such a proposal preferring to leave the responsibility for population control where it has been historically, with the female populace. The greatest push back for such an idea will come from the 1-10% crowd as the vaunted Western economic system of Capitalism is based upon ever expanding “consumption”. Unfortunately I must side with Lucy’s implied contention that humankind is going to crash with a gigantic thud unless we can engineer our way out of the impending cataclysmic catastrophe. Cheap energy is what enabled us to reproduce exponentially and produce the food stocks required (for some of us) to enable us to live the lives of luxury of the present. On the off hand chance that some folks have not be made aware, cheap energy is a thing of the past and cheap everything else, especially food, is following the same path at a quickening pace. If non hydrocarbon combustion techniques are developed to generate all electricity requirements from whence will come the chemical stocks provided by oil and natural gas 50, 100, 1000, 10000, ., ., years hence for an exponentially expanding human population dependent upon same for food production?

    Obviously this soapbox thesis could/should/would require massive refinements and additions; but, just as Lucy said we need to try harder, perhaps we need to try differently also. Because humans live such relatively short lives and tend to measure change in terms of those short life spans they tend to not be very observant of the rapidity of the changes to our environment and they far and away prefer to deny the existence of anything that reduces their individual lifestyle expectations.

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  7. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:


    Count me as the third person besides yourself who considers the worldwide growth in the human population to be the biggest threat to the sustainability of the earth as a whole. I find it absurd that we allow people to procreate at will yet regulate and micro-manage other human activities and behaviors that have far, far less impact on not only the earth, but our fellow human beings who’ll come after us or are alive at this very moment.

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  8. mervel says:

    Who is the “we” that will allow or not allow people to live?

    That is the question?

    The whole thing is a myth. We do not have unsustainable populations. People seem to be licking their chops at the idea of genocide, war and plague, murder and death; which to me is the real sickness. It is usually those who want their own private playground and are mad that those grubby poor people are ruining things. This is an idea that comes actually straight from the darkest depths of human sin and pride. If you really believe that the earth is too full, then why don’t you commit suicide? Of course not its always someone else who should die or someone else’s children who should die.

    Malthus has been proved wrong over and over again, how many times will it take to let this old idea of overpopulation die? People starve not for lack of food, we have an over abundance of food in the world, the problem is the will to create sustainable humane political systems and to have a more even income distribution.

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  9. Lucy Martin says:


    I can’t get behind targeted plagues for all sorts of reasons. For starters, that would be totally immoral and cause enormous suffering. Next, it’s a bad idea on a practical level too: every group/country is resented by some other group/country. Any effort to invoke a deadly germ-race would surely lead to total extermination, or horrific conflict. (Let’s not even go there, please!)

    But I do think there is such a thing as “carrying capacity” …for a lifeboat, a highway…or a planet. To me, it simply defies logic to think infinite expansion of population can be supported in a finite environment.

    I’d rather see populations level off by way of enlightened self-interest rather than by force, violence, starvation or disease.

    While I do hope that will be the case, sometimes the picture looks pretty dicy.

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