UM students' human-powered helicopter becomes airborne

Engineering students in contention for world record with Gamera project

May 12, 2011|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

Engineering students at the University of Maryland are claiming a world record after successfully lofting their human-powered Gamera helicopter a few inches above a gymnasium floor Thursday afternoon at the Comcast Center in College Park.

The flight came during the team's final attempt, after two days of tests and near-misses. But just before 5:30 p.m., with pilot Judy Wexler, 24, pedaling furiously with her hands and feet, the gangly craft's rotors bent and pulled Gamera perhaps a foot into the air. In seconds it was over.

"Not even a question. We don't have to review the videotape. … Absolutely amazing," said team leader Brandon Bush, 29. It wasn't immediately clear how long Gamera was airborne, or how high it got.

Kristan R. Maynard, the judge assigned by the National Aeronautic Association to certify the record attempt, said, "As is always the case in these types of efforts, any attempt is a pending result" until the video and other data can be reviewed by the NAA and the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in Switzerland.

"It sure looked good to me," Maynard said, "but at this point it's unofficial."

The flight was greeted by whoops, cheers and applause in the gym. Team members crowded the cockpit to congratulate each other and Wexler, who becomes the first female pilot to fly a human-powered helicopter.

Gamera had appeared to lift off the floor during one attempt earlier in the day. But one of the judge's official cameras — trained on landing posts under the cockpit of each of four rotors — was out of focus.

"We believe we had a successful flight," said Darryll Pines, dean of the university's A. James Clark School of Engineering. "But the faulty camera won't allow us to prove it." So the team of 52 graduate and undergraduate students kept trying.

Gamera, named for a giant flying turtle in Japanese monster movies, has a central cockpit surrounded by four 43-foot rotors. While Wexler pedals at 120 rpm, the giant blades spin at 18 rpm, just inches off the floor of the center's auxiliary gym.

The Gamera crew can capture the world record just by getting airborne. Two other teams — in Japan and California — have done it already. But neither flight was certified for a world record. The Japanese team flew for 19.46 seconds 17 years ago.

Bush said he thought Gamera may have beaten that unofficial time record. But the flight did not seem to last 19 seconds.

A flight of 60 seconds, reaching an altitude of 3 meters, could have won the Gamera team the $250,000 Sikorsky Prize offered by the American Helicopter Society.

The Clark School's Twitter feed reported that at least three rotors and the cockpit were off the floor during one early-afternoon bid for flight. When the cameras couldn't confirm it, the students then cut off the cockpit landing post to shave weight and make the judge's job easier.

A subsequent attempt didn't seem to go as well, and Wexler reported that the pedaling had gotten harder. As some of the students went to work to solve that problem, others began to reposition the craft for the next attempt. That's when they heard a sharp crack in the carbon-fiber truss supporting one of the rotor assemblies.

"So far it doesn't look like anything was wrong," said Assistant Dean Jim McMenamin. But soon after, the call went out for Super Glue, sandpaper, alcohol and other supplies.

After the glue dried, the Gamera team tried one more time to get airborne. And that time they appear to have nailed it.

Maryland weather blog: Frank Roylance on meteorology

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